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Wellcome Film of the Month: Water, Water Everywhere

6 Jul, 2012

The opening bars to Legionnaires’ Disease, a Health and Safety Executive sponsored video, are from ‘El Moldova’ (a tone poem called Má vlast by Smetana); it describes the river Vlatava which runs through Prague. The footage of rushing water evokes pastoral beauty and the purity of nature.

In fact, this video was produced and distributed to companies to emphasise the potentially malign nature of water used in industry and commercial premises; such processes could harbour the potentially deadly bacterium legionella, which can lurk in small droplets of contaminated water and cause Legionnaires’ Disease or Legionellosis, so named after an outbreak in 1976 when a number of visitors attending an American Legion event in Philadelphia, USA, were suddenly struck down and died. Symptoms are a high fever and pneumonia.

This post is written whilst there is an ongoing investigation into an outbreak of legionellosis in Scotland, which is thought to have originated from one of a number of commercial cooling towers in Edinburgh. According to the Scottish Parliament Committee of the 26th June, there  are now 48 confirmed and 47 suspected cases of the disease.  It is one of 32 notifiable diseases, many such as cholera, diphtheria and typhus strike fear in the minds of the public and are reminiscent of Victorian urban industrial squalor. Films on these diseases are well represented in the public health information films in Wellcome Film, although unlike many of these diseases, Legionnaires’ is neither contagious nor communicable. About one third of cases in the UK are thought to have originated overseas, contracted typically by staying in hotels or hospitals with poorly maintained air conditioning or water heating systems.

The Health and Safety Executive made this video and are also involved in the current hearings to investigate any possible criminal liability which resulted in the outbreak. The HSE, in their own words, was set up as “an independent watchdog for work-related health, safety and illness”. Its objective is to prevent people being killed, injured or made ill by work, primarily by ensuring organisations provide adequate risk assessments. They have produced a timeline of their activities showing the parallel trajectory of major (usually industrial disasters like the explosion at the Buncefield Oil Depot) in tandem with legislation.

Urban development over a century or so has led to many of us living cheek by jowl with factories, plants and public buildings. The problem is that legionella bacteria are ubiquitous. There are obvious sites where the bacterium can be harboured such as in cooling towers required for industrial processes, but there are also hot and cold water systems in hospitals and care homes.

The video is rather bland and pedestrian in its production aesthetic, although it manages to deliver the salient points of the disease and its spread effectively via a crisp spoken narrative. Another video in the collection, sponsored by the HSE produced along the same lines, is Good health is good business, 1999.

This video was made for employers giving advice on how to avoid work-related illness and injury. Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising part of this video is the necessity of wearing safety earphones when feeding pigs; they squeal or ‘scream’ with excitement and the noise is truly deafening. In contrast, an earlier film made by the well-regarded ICI Film Unit, The human factor, 1959, uses a number of stylistic devices to deliver its message. The film is about how accidents in the workplace occur. It dramatises and then using flashbacks reconstructs the events that led up to how a factory worker has a serious accident. Due to a catalogue of misfortunes – one being given additional chores as he’s leaving for work by his wife, then missing his bus – we learn that all these factors have contributed to the accident.

The film is melodramatic; there is a dream sequence when voices come to him in his semi-conscious state reminding him to be careful: as a child using scissors, a policeman tells him to take care crossing the road, his mother tells him off for climbing a tree, a man tells him to be careful using a carpentry plane, whilst doing military service, he learns to load his rifle. The closing sequences of the film are a wide-shot of a crowded terrace of men watching a football match (in itself a distant memory post-Hillsborough, 1989) and then a scene of mass graves to illustrate the loss of life in industry. At the time, 750 people were killed per year in industrial accidents; the HSE figures published for 2010/11 are 489 dead.

Angela Saward, Wellcome Film

You can learn about the Wellcome Film project here. If you would like to make use of this archive footage in your own projects, please visit the Wellcome Library catalogue to download the original files, which are distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence.

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