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It's time to plan for water safety in all buildings

Modern buildings comprise increasingly complex water systems. But increased complexity brings with it risks to health and safety that must also be understood and managed. I believe it’s time to convene a professional oversight group to look at the introduction of a comprehensive Water Safety Plan for buildings.

Today, resource efficient building designs often incorporate water re-use systems such as rainwater harvesting, greywater and blackwater, alongside standard drinking water provision. Hot and cold water systems distribution systems need to be designed to operate safely and hygienically with a range of demands placed upon them. Hot water temperature needs to be regulated to control bacteria growth whilst avoiding potential scalding. And we need to plan for changing demands on water systems through a building’s lifetime, especially during periods of maintenance or while only partially occupied. 

Taken together, these water related hazards such as chemical and bacterial contamination, scalding and over-pressure lead to risks to building occupants. So designers need to understand and assess water hazards holistically, in order to develop effective control measures. 

Sharing information and documentation is one way we could improve control. Designers would benefit greatly from simple documentation which could then be passed through from the installer to the operator of the building. It would ensure risks are properly considered and communicated from design, installation, commissioning through to operation. This so-called ‘chain of responsibility’ would ensure that systems are operated and maintained in the manner that the designer envisioned and that risks are properly controlled.

Important support for this approach already exists. The World Health Organisation guidelines refer to the benefits of Water Safety Plans (WSPs) which incorporate the principles of other risk management paradigms, including the multi-barrier and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points approaches. 

Currently, WSPs are considered the most effective means of maintaining a safe supply of public drinking water. Their use should ensure that water is safe for human consumption and that it meets regulatory water health standards. There is comprehensive guidance available for developing Water Safety Plans for municipal water systems, for example the Water Safety Portal. These existing municipal WSP principles could be adapted for buildings.

Initial feedback on the use of WSPs from a joint conference of the British Standards Institution (BSI) and Water Management Society suggests support for the use of risk assessments and management guidance together with a series of simple templates. This could provide an immediate basis for a WSP (Buildings) which could be passed on through the ‘chain of responsibility’ and used to understand and document the risks inherent with water systems. 

I believe that we need to create an industry expert working group to review the need and feasibility to introducing a Water Safety Plan approach for water systems in buildings. This could include members from the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH), the Water Management Society Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, the Institute of Healthcare Engineering & Estate Management (IHEEM), the Society of Public health Engineers (SoPHE), the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE), WaterSafe, together with representatives from the water industry (Water Regulations enforcement) and other interested parties. 

This expert group would need to review the hazards facing buildings’ water systems and assess whether they are adequately controlled under current regulation and industry practice. They would also review how existing industry guidance could be adapted for use in buildings and consult with building owners, the water industry, regulators and other interested parties on the value of undertaking a WSP for buildings. Finally, the group could outline a business plan to create a WSP (Buildings) resource for the industry. 

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on maintaining the safety of our water systems in and around buildings.