The practice of Environmental Health is sometimes referred to as the dog that does not bark. I take the meaning to illustrate that circumstance where the institution is mature, accepted, and generally established as reliable. Like a sturdy bridge, our Environmental Health infrastructure is steadfast. And yet, failures do occur and can be costly and even deadly.
Environmental Health is the function in your community which protects the public’s health in the built and natural environments. This phrasing, “the built and natural environments” is apt, but needs a short description.
The built environment represents man-made structures, infrastructure, and usages in which people work, live, and recreate. The natural environments refer to our air, water, open spaces, water bodies and more.
In practical terms, an effective Environmental Health operation means your family can meet for lunch at a downtown café without concern of foodborne illness or adulterated food. You can confidently send your kids to school or summer camp. Vacations aren’t spoiled by a poorly maintained public pool or contaminated public beach.
It’s dizzying, the number of ways we interact in the built and natural environments. Individually, these are called health programs.
Together, health program management practices form a web of trust—a trust so effective that we can sometimes take it for granted. Let’s break it down. What do Environmental Health Professionals do?
First, know that they value science-based and risk-based practices. Interestingly, retail food (restaurants, caterers, food trucks, cafeterias, etc.) are among the highest risk activities in the built environment. And so, our EH professionals invest there, approving kitchen designs before they’re built, educating food handlers, inspecting kitchens regularly, and investigating complaints.
When the operations and oversight occur as intended and we don’t suffer serious community illnesses, then a balance is struck. The dog doesn’t bark. But, if the services don’t occur as intended or are ineffective, then an illness, even an outbreak, is inevitable and costly. The CDC reports that 48 million people are sickened and 3,000 die each year from foodborne illness. It’s a serious matter of public risk to be managed.
“ Beware of the man that does not talk, and the dog that does not bark . ”
What are the key performance indicators for monitoring the risk? What can we do to ensure their success? A few key considerations can help us mitigate risk, such as:
Is the Department Funded, Staffed, and Equipped?
Funding limitations (often a function of approved fees) impact the department’s capacity, chiefly in hiring, training, and data management. College graduates want to launch their careers where the technology is modern. This means equipping inspectors with wireless connectivity and tablets. It means inspector apps, dispatching, and follow-up meet inspectors’ expectations and value their professional contributions.
Is the Department Able to Leverage Existing Standards?
The FDA provides well-respected Food Code (https://www.fda.gov/food/retail-food-protection/fdafood-code). The CDC provides a Modal Aquatic Health Code (see https://www.cdc.gov/mahc/index.html). The National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) and the Florida Environmental Health Association (FEHA) also publish peer-reviewed science-based guidance. For policy makers, listen to your EH professionals. They are very aware of available resources, but probably need your support in changing law.
Is Data at the Heart
A health inspector wouldn’t cite a violation without measuring cooking temperature or sanitizer pH. In the same fashion, health departments shouldn’t set fees or reorganize priorities without the underlying data. This is where a modern, commercially recognized, data system is absolutely critical. Essential capabilities include cloud/SaaS, mobile inspection software, public-facing portal, business analytics, and the flexibility to adapt to changing standards.
This article was originally published in the inaugural issue of Florida Technology Magazine on page 25.