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A role with many names, a Public Health Inspector, Environmental Health Practitioner or, as it is more commonly known, an Environmental Health Officer (EHO) is an individual who is responsible for carrying out or enforcing measures that protect public health.
Many people think Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) are solely responsible for food hygiene. However, an EHO is actually responsible for health and safety hazards related to food, air, land, facilities, and other environmental factors. An EHO has the power to investigate, assess and control environmental factors that could pose a risk to health or wellbeing.
EHOs administer and enforce legislation related to environmental health. They also ensure that any protective measures are in place and that the risk level is as low as is reasonably possible.
EHOs work in a wide range of industries and establishments, including:
- Food vans.
- Catering companies.
- Personal service establishments.
- Water treatment facilities.
- Leisure facilities (e.g. swimming pools, gyms and health centres).
- Care homes.
- Educational settings.
- Community centres.
- Commercial offices.
- Private companies.
- Domestic dwellings.
Environmental Health Officers are usually highly trained. They will hold an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in environmental health that is recognised by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland (REHIS) in Scotland. They will also undertake professional training as part of their role.
What does an Environmental Health Officer do?
An Environmental Health Officer investigates health hazards in a large number of settings. They visit settings and establishments to ensure all aspects of the establishment are operating safely, healthily and hygienically. Their tasks and responsibilities are hugely varied, depending on the type of establishment and the potential risks and hazards they may encounter.
EHOs have a number of important responsibilities, including prevention, consultation, inspections, investigations and the education of businesses, establishments and the wider community.
Some of the main responsibilities of an EHO include:
- Conducting inspections.
- Conducting workplace safety assessments.
- Collecting evidence related to the incident or hazard.
- Rating businesses and establishments in accordance with the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme.
- Ensuring compliance with food safety, hygiene and health and safety legislation and regulations.
- Investigating public health nuisances.
- Investigating complaints.
- Investigating workplace accidents.
- Implementing disease control measures.
- Developing policies and guidelines.
- Advising employers and employees on environmental health issues.
- Responding to public health emergencies.
- Taking samples or collecting evidence.
- Compiling reports.
- Delivering training.
- Serving legal notices.
- Liaising with other professionals, such as the local authority, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the police, and the courts.
- Giving evidence in court.
As mentioned earlier, an EHO is not solely focused on hazards related to food.
There are many aspects of environmental health that an EHO is responsible for:
- Toxic contamination.
- Pest infestations.
- Food poisoning.
- Accidents at work.
- Noise control.
- Air quality monitoring.
- Waste management.
- Sewage disposal.
- Fire safety breaches.
- Housing standards.
- Disease prevention.
- Infection prevention and control.
- Water protection and testing.
However, the most common role of an Environmental Health Officer is related to issues regarding food hygiene.
What do EHOs look for when they visit premises?
There are several things an Environmental Health Officer will look for when visiting premises. Any food businesses or establishments that are expecting a visit from the EHO can prepare for the visit by ensuring they have their food safety management systems and documentation up to date.
Some of the things EHOs look for during a visit include:
1. Food Labelling – They will inspect food labelling to ensure the correct allergen information is included, the best before or use-by date is accurate and the menu descriptions are correct.
2. Personal Hygiene Practices – An EHO will look at handwashing procedures, as well as other personal hygiene practices, such as the use of hairnets, gloves and other appropriate protective clothing.
3. Risk Assessments – Businesses with more than five employees are legally required to conduct risk assessments. Although this is not a legal requirement for smaller businesses, it is still recommended.
4. Food Safety Management System – Food businesses in the UK must implement a Food Safety Management System (FSMS). An FSMS is a systematic approach to controlling food safety hazards. It ensures that a business is following safety protocols and will influence the food hygiene rating. The FSMS should include appropriate and well-documented systems in line with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) procedures. For more information on the food hygiene rating system, consult our knowledge base.
5. Equipment Maintenance – This includes all appliances and equipment, handles, buttons and switches.
6. Cleaning Procedures and Schedules – The EHO will look at how you clean food preparation areas, equipment, appliances, the working area, surfaces and floors. They will look at your schedule for cleaning, the procedures you follow, the management of cleaning materials and chemicals and whether you use colour coded cleaning equipment.
7. Temperature Control – This includes frozen, refrigerated and room temperature food. The EHO will also look at the temperature control of cooked food, focusing on cooking and cooling temperatures and the temperature of food that is stored and displayed.
8. Contamination Prevention – This includes contamination that is physical, chemical, microbial and allergenic.
9. Waste Disposal – How is any waste disposed of? How often are bins cleaned? Is waste a safe distance from food preparation areas? Are pest control measures implemented correctly?
10. Pest Control Measures – Including how often premises are checked for signs of pests.
11. Hot Water, Ventilation and Drainage – You must make sure all facilities are in good working condition and sufficient for your business’s requirements.
12. The Condition and Structure of Your Building – This could include the layout, design, size and appropriateness of your building.
How does an Environmental Health Officer calculate the score?
During the EHO inspection, the business or establishment will be assessed in three main areas:
- How hygienically the food is handled – Including how it is stored, prepared, cooked and cooled. The EHO will also look at how food contamination is avoided.
- The condition of the premises – This includes cleaning, equipment, facilities, the workspace, the building, structure, layout, lighting, ventilation and drainage.
- How the business or establishment manages, records and documents.
After an EHO inspection is complete, the business or establishment will be given a food hygiene rating, that comes with a number, ranging from 0 to 5:
0 = Urgent improvement is needed. The business or establishment scored more than 50 points during the EHO inspection.
1 = Major improvement is needed. The business or establishment scored between 45 and 50 points during the EHO inspection.
2 = Improvements are needed. The business or establishment scored between 35 and 40 points during the EHO inspection.
3 = The business or establishment was found to be generally satisfactory. A score between 25 and 30 points was scored during the EHO inspection.
4 = The business or establishment is rated as good. 20 points were scored during the EHO inspection.
5 = The business or establishment is rated as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’. A score between 0 and 15 was recorded during the EHO inspection.
What powers do Environmental Health Officers have?
An Environmental Health Officer’s powers fall into three categories:
1. Access to registered food premises.
2. Controlling the food premises.
3. Sampling products.
Within these three categories, an EHO has several different powers that they may need to enforce the law.
The first power to be aware of is the power or right of entry. This means that if an EHO needs to carry out an inspection, you must allow them entry and allow them access to places and things they need to inspect. An EHO has the right to enter your premises at all reasonable hours. The EHO does not need to give you prior notice of their visit unless your business runs from your home, in which case you should be given 24 hours’ notice.
If the Environmental Health Officer is refused entry to the premises, has a reason to believe they will be refused entry, or if premises are closed, they can apply for a warrant through a magistrate and enter by using reasonable force.
Whilst on the premises, an EHO has the right to take photographic and video evidence, take samples of food, access business records, including on the computer, and question staff.
If a business or establishment isn’t complying with the Food Safety Act or any other regulations, or if they are putting the health and safety of customers, the public, or employees at risk, an Environmental Health Officer has the power to take action to minimise any potential risks.
If the potential risk is less serious, or if this is your first offence, the EHO may provide you with advice and guidance to help your business improve. This could include information on which laws or regulations are not being complied with and offer advice on how to achieve compliance.
In other cases, the EHO can seize your goods, temporarily or permanently close your business, and recommend you for prosecution.
Some of the powers an EHO might use, include:
- Serve a Hygiene Improvement Notice
This states all items that need improving or require attention. It should clearly state why the Notice has been issued, any action that needs to be taken, and the time limit for this action.
- Serve a Hygiene Emergency Prohibition Notice
This is used if the EHO believes there is an imminent risk to health. It prohibits the business from operating. The EHO can target a specific product or piece of equipment if they consider it to be specifically unsafe.
- Apply for a Hygiene Emergency Prohibition Order
This must be applied for through a magistrate, within three days of the Hygiene Emergency Prohibition Notice. The business can oppose the order and if they are successful, can apply for compensation for lost earnings. If the Order is approved by the magistrate, the food business cannot operate until the EHO considers them to no longer be a risk. A Prohibition Order against premises can be revoked by the local authority whereas a Prohibition Order against an individual can only be revoked by a court.
- Serve a Food Labelling Improvement Notice
If you have not complied with food regulations regarding labelling, you may be issued with an Improvement Notice. As not following allergen regulations is considered a serious offence, in this situation, you may be instantly prosecuted. For more information on food allergen labelling, visit our knowledge base.
An EHO also has the power to take unfit food from your premises with or without your permission. This is also known as a seizure. If there is too much food to seize immediately, the EHO can detain your products until they can be seized at another time.
An EHO also has the power to prosecute. This means they can begin the process of prosecution or recommend you to be prosecuted in a court of law. A prosecution could result in your receiving a fine, a prison sentence or a ban that prevents you from running a food business.
Do Environmental Health Officers have the power to arrest?
Environmental Health Officers do not have the power to arrest in the UK. If an offence is considered serious, the EHO can recommend you be prosecuted in a court of law. However, they cannot arrest you, regardless of the offence they believe is being committed.
If an EHO witnesses or suspects illegal or dangerous activities are taking place in the business or establishment, they could contact the police who could then make any necessary arrests.
Examples could include:
- Drug offences.
- Hiring illegal workers.
- Human trafficking.
- Dangerous food practices.
What rules must Environmental Health Officers follow?
Environmental Health Officers must also follow certain rules and regulations during their visit.
- Always show identification before beginning an inspection.
- Give clear feedback once the inspection is complete. Feedback could include any issues or risks that were identified, how to avoid these risks from occurring, and any relevant laws the establishment must comply with. The EHO must be clear when giving feedback on what must be followed to comply with the law and what is the recommended good practice.
- Explain any actions and give reasons for these actions in writing.
- Identify, in writing, any breaches in the law and give a copy or statement of the specific law.
- Clearly state the time limit for meeting the mandatory requirements or following any actions. This time limit should be reasonable unless an immediate risk to public health has been identified.
- Clearly outline any procedures for appealing any actions taken by the EHO or the local authority.