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What does an environmental health officer do?
An environmental health officer is sometimes also known as an EHO, environmental health practitioner (EHP) or public health inspector. Being an environmental health officer is a highly specialised job that requires knowledge, skills and experience in different areas, such as food hygiene, health and safety and the environment.
An environmental health officer visits different premises to ensure they are operating safely and are hygienic and healthy. They carry out various duties, including investigating environmental health issues, monitoring compliance with relevant legislation and providing education and advice. The role also involves administrative work, such as writing reports.
An environmental health officer’s main aim is to protect people from health, safety and environmental risks that could cause injuries or ill health. Most roles are food-based, which involves preventing customers from being harmed by poor hygiene and food safety risks, e.g. food poisoning. According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), approximately 2.4 million cases of foodborne illness occur every year in the UK. Overall, being an environmental health officer is about keeping people safe and healthy.
Environmental health officers can work with colleagues, such as other environmental health officers, trading standards officers, government workers and agency staff. They may also be required to liaise with other external stakeholders, including business owners, employees, customers, homeowners, landowners, landlords, members of the public, other local authorities (LAs), the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), court staff and the police.
Environmental health officers tend to work in the public sector for LAs, e.g. councils, which are relatively large employers. However, they also work for other organisations, such as the NHS and the armed forces.
The responsibilities an environmental health officer has depends on the areas they specialise in and where they work. Some of their duties may include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Inspecting to ensure compliance with food safety and hygiene, health and safety and environmental legislation.
- Rating businesses under the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme.
- Following up and investigating complaints of foodborne illness, infectious disease, pest infestations and other issues, e.g. pollution and poor housing standards.
- Taking samples, e.g. food or hazardous substances, for laboratory analysis.
- Enforcing laws and regulations relating to environmental health.
- Investigating workplace accidents and dangerous occurrences.
- Providing advice and guidance to business owners, employers and community groups on environmental health.
- Giving educational talks on environmental health.
- Keeping records and writing reports.
- Giving evidence for cases that go to court.
Some of the above responsibilities are powers given to environmental health officers under relevant legislation. The law permits them to enter any premises within the authority area at any reasonable time, and an appointment is not required. If refused entry, they can get a warrant, use reasonable force, and be accompanied by a police officer.
An environmental health officer can expect to work 35-40 hours a week, Monday to Friday. However, it may be necessary to work at unsociable hours, such as evenings and weekends, but this will usually be on a rota.
There is scope for flexible working as an environmental health officer, especially workers with local authorities (LAs). Depending on their role, they could job share, work part-time or work from home.
Environmental health officers will need to travel regularly as part of their role, as they will be required to visit different types of businesses and premises in various locations. It is uncommon for them to have to stay overnight or travel overseas.
What to expect
There are many positive aspects to being an environmental health officer. It is rewarding to know that by verifying that businesses are complying with food hygiene, health and safety and environmental laws, environmental health officers are helping keep people safe and healthy. In some cases, environmental health can also save people’s lives by preventing food poisoning, allergic reactions, pollution and health and safety risks, which can all be life-threatening.
Environmental health officers are unlikely to get bored in their role, as no two days are the same, and they will be visiting different types of businesses, premises and locations. One day they may be carrying out a food hygiene rating inspection, and the next they may be investigating a workplace accident. The role enables environmental health officers to travel around their region, and there may also be opportunities to travel further afield and explore some new areas.
Even though being an environmental health officer is rewarding, and there are many positives associated with the role, they may also face challenges, for example:
- Confrontational situations – there may be instances where environmental health officers face confrontational situations when carrying out their job. Inspecting, investigating and enforcing the law can often result in confrontation between business owners/individuals and environmental health officers. Also, people who have been made ill or injured can become agitated and angry if they are not getting the answers they want.
- Difficult working conditions – in some cases, environmental health officers will have to work in dirty, infested, unhygienic and unsafe locations, sometimes in all types of weather. If an individual is uncomfortable working in harsh conditions or are squeamish, then being an environmental health officer would not be the right career path.
- Protective clothing – environmental health officers are required to dress smartly. They may also need to wear protective clothing, depending on the premises/site they are visiting.
There are pros and cons in every career choice, and prospective environmental health officers must know what to expect before deciding whether the role is for them. There is no doubt that working in environmental health can be difficult and stressful at times. There is a lot of travel involved in the role, it requires work in uncomfortable working environments, and there may be confrontational situations. However, there are many positives too, and environmental health can be a rewarding and fascinating career choice.
When considering whether to be an environmental health officer, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the necessary personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Where do environmental health officers work?
Environmental health officers work mostly for local authorities (LAs), e.g. county, city, borough and district councils. However, they may also work for:
- Government agencies, e.g. the Environment Agency (EA), the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
- Private companies, e.g. consultancies.
- Food businesses and retail, e.g. supermarkets and large retailers.
- The National Health Service (NHS).
- The armed forces, e.g. the Royal Air Force, the Navy and the Army.
- Travel and holiday companies, e.g. cruise ship operators and resorts.
Most environmental health officers will be based in an office or at their home (remote working) and may travel to a variety of sites and premises, including (this list is not exhaustive):
- Domestic dwellings, e.g. houses and flats.
- Leisure facilities, e.g. gyms.
- Bed and breakfasts.
- Care homes.
- Catering vans.
- Educational settings, e.g. playgroups, nurseries, schools, colleges and universities.
When it comes to health and safety, some premises will fall under the HSE’s remit, and the above will be the responsibility of local authority environmental health departments. Some areas, such as environmental issues, are also split between LAs and the Environment Agency.
How much do environmental health officers earn?
Environmental health officers’ salaries will depend on their qualifications, experience and location. It will also depend on the type and level of the role, for example (these are only a guide):
There is potential for environmental health officers to earn more if they work in senior posts or other sectors, i.e. as a consultant in the private sector.
As an apprentice, the salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Apprentices must earn at least the current National Minimum Wage (NMW). Some employers will pay more than this, but it will depend on the organisation and role on offer.
Personal qualities needed to be an environmental health officer
Being an environmental health officer can be demanding and stressful. Therefore, individuals need to have the right personal qualities to carry out the role successfully.
Some of the personal qualities that an environmental health officer requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Knowledge of food safety and hygiene, environmental and health and safety legislation.
- Knowledge of court procedures and government regulations.
- Knowledge of maths, science and English.
- Having sensitivity and understanding.
- Good hazard perception and risk awareness.
- Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal.
- Good customer service skills.
- Good technical skills.
- Good listening skills.
- Good investigation skills.
- Good decision-making skills.
- Good organisational skills.
- Good time management.
- Good reasoning skills.
- Good analytical skills.
- Being thorough and having attention to detail.
- Being patient.
- Being motivated and committed.
- Being methodical and careful when gathering and assessing evidence.
- Being confident, assertive and diplomatic when dealing with the public.
- The ability to be flexible.
- The ability to work both in a team and alone using own initiative.
- The ability to work under pressure and to tight deadlines.
- The ability to remain calm in stressful and confrontational situations.
- The ability to use IT equipment for basic tasks, e.g. writing reports.
- The ability to work in difficult working conditions, e.g. dirty and infested.
Qualifications and training
To become an environmental health officer, individuals usually need an undergraduate degree in environmental health, which is approved by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) (England, Wales and Northern Ireland). In Scotland, the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland (REHIS) is the awarding body. To be accepted on to a degree course usually requires two or three relevant A levels (or equivalent). This will depend on the university entry requirements, and individuals should check before applying.
Enrolling on an appropriate undergraduate degree programme is the main route to become an environmental health officer. However, individuals can also undertake a postgraduate course, such as a master’s (MSc). To be accepted on this type of course usually requires a relevant degree (2:1 or 2:2 depending on the university). Students can enrol on undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses on a full-time or part-time basis.
There is also an opportunity to apply for an environmental health practitioner degree apprenticeship. Individuals should have 4 or 5 GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) and A levels (or equivalent) to help them enrol onto a degree apprenticeship, as it is very competitive. The CIEH has further information on apprenticeships on their website.
Once an individual has successfully completed their degree, including professional exams, work-based training and a portfolio, the Environmental Health Registration Board (EHRB) will award them a certificate of registration. They will also be added to the EHRB register as a qualified environmental health practitioner (EHP).
On-the-job training and work experience
To become an environmental health officer, individuals will require a degree, as mentioned. However, other options can help towards becoming an environmental health officer, for example:
- Training schemes – it is possible to start work as an environmental health technician whilst studying for a part-time environmental health degree.
- Work experience – gaining practical experience can help an individual become an environmental health technician/officer and help them understand what the role entails. There may be an opportunity to work with local authorities (LAs) and learn on the job by shadowing an experienced environmental health officer.
Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help environmental health officers enter the profession, enhance their employability and keep their knowledge and skills current.
Most colleges and accredited private training companies can provide training courses. Some examples of relevant courses that may be useful for environmental health officers include:
- Food safety and hygiene training level 3.
- HACCP training level 3.
- Allergen and anaphylaxis awareness training.
- Health and safety training level 3.
- Environmental training, including waste management.
- Customer service skills.
- COVID-19 awareness training.
Professional bodies and associations, such as the CIEH, can advise on reputable training courses. They also have events that can help environmental health officers and give them the means to continue their professional development. Continuing professional development (CPD) is a mandatory requirement for some levels of CIEH membership, i.e. members and chartered EHPs.
The type of training required will depend on what employers are looking for and the CPD requirements for membership. As well as looking on professional body websites, it is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the courses required for environmental health officers and other training needed for specific areas. Jobs can be found on EHN Jobs, NHS Jobs, LG Jobs and other job sites, such as Armed Forces Careers and Indeed.
Having more relevant training and competence will open up more opportunities for environmental health officers. Refresher training will also be required, as it is a legal requirement under legislation, and it keeps knowledge and skills up to date.
As most environmental health officers will be required to drive as part of their role, they should have a full clean driving licence.
Type of environmental health roles to specialise in
There are also plenty of opportunities for environmental health officers to specialise in various areas, for example (this list is not exhaustive):
Food hygiene and safety
- Enforcing food hygiene and safety legislation.
- Carrying out food hygiene rating scheme inspections.
- Investigating food safety complaints and incidents, e.g. food poisoning outbreaks, pest infestations or allergic reactions.
- Promoting food safety and providing advice to food businesses.
- Responding to infectious disease notifications.
Health and safety
- Enforcing occupational health and safety legislation.
- Carrying out health and safety inspections.
- Investigating accidents and dangerous occurrences.
- Following up on workplace health and safety complaints and concerns.
- Promoting health and safety awareness.
- Focussing on areas of public health, including smoking, obesity and mental health.
- Working with other health professionals to protect and promote public health, e.g. through education programmes and awareness campaigns.
- Registration of premises that carry out ear piercings, electrolysis, tattooing and acupuncture.
Environmental protection, including pollution, nuisance and waste
- Enforcing a range of environmental protection legislation, e.g. nuisance (noise, odour and light), contaminated land, air quality, water quality, planning and waste management. Some officers may specialise in one area of environmental protection, e.g. noise and nuisance.
- Undertaking inspections, assessments, monitoring and sampling to assess compliance with relevant legislation.
- Investigating nuisance/pollution complaints and incidents.
- Inspecting, monitoring and enforcing housing conditions, e.g. in private rented properties, to ensure they are safe and fit for people to live in.
- Investigating complaints and reports of illegal evictions.
- Assessing health risks from poor housing.
- Licensing certain types of accommodation.
Some environmental health officers may focus solely on one particular area. Others may be generalists and have responsibilities for different areas of environmental health. It is not uncommon for environmental health officers to carry out work in multiple aspects, e.g. food safety and health and safety.
All different environmental health roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. However, most environmental health officers will need to know how to interpret and enforce relevant legislation, conduct inspections and investigations and follow up on complaints. Any additional areas of expertise required will depend on what a company is looking for in an environmental health officer and the type of work an individual wants to carry out.
Environmental health officers ensure that businesses and individuals are compliant with the law, whether relating to food hygiene and safety, health and safety or the environment. They are responsible for protecting people from environmental health-related risks, so they can live and work in a healthy and safe environment. Therefore, environmental health officers must have the necessary competence (knowledge, skills and experience) to carry out their responsibilities effectively. They should also know the limits of their competency and not carry out duties if they have not been trained and are not competent.
Environmental health standards and laws are updated regularly. Environmental health officers need to keep abreast with the latest developments and changes in legislation to remain legally compliant and ensure they are carrying out their roles effectively. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives environmental health officers the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities.
Joining a professional body can help prospective and current environmental health officers enhance their skills and overall career. The CIEH offers different levels of membership, CPD, access to industry contacts, advice, and networking events.
There is ample opportunity for progression within an environmental health officer career. With more qualifications and experience, an individual can enter a senior, principal or chief role and even gain Chartered Environmental Health Practitioner status. They can also decide to focus on a particular area of environmental health, such as housing or pollution. Alternatively, they may want to work in consultancy. There is potential for growth and movement in this field.
Having the knowledge, skills and experience can also lead to a career in different industries. For example, an environmental health officer may want to teach at a college, university or private training provider. They may also want to work as a health and safety and environmental manager, officer or adviser in the private sector.