A grand day out

23 April 2021, Dr Phil James, CIEH Chief Executive

No Fly Tipping sign with trees in background

My trajectory along a steep learning curve got a real boost last week when I had the opportunity to spend the day with the Cannock Chase District Council Environmental Health team. In this blog, I reflect on what I discovered and how that’s shaping my thinking about our priorities at CIEH.

One of the first things that struck me, besides the warmth of the welcome, was the sheer range of duties and activities within the scope of the team. Before even mentioning the current demands from COVID-19, their responsibilities stretched well beyond the five traditional environmental health disciplines I’d expected to find: a public mortuary, education and outreach programmes, and primary authority duties for both national and global businesses.

Add to that the team’s recent success with a disturbing animal welfare case that had featured in a BBC documentary, while an even more significant investigation was still underway. Animal welfare work is a major opportunity for raising our public profile and attracting people into the profession. So argued my host for the day – and I think he’s right.

An hour later, I stood amid the vivid green of a forested beauty spot where ramblers passed by, unaware of the conversation we were having about the hidden cameras lurking in the mossy nooks and branches of the silver birch surrounding us. Warning signs on nearby trees betrayed their clandestine presence but helped to reduce the fly-tipping that was still the scourge of this otherwise beautiful area. Not enough though, to stop the alerts pinging through to the team’s mobile phones late at night, carrying evidence that would help to put the illicit operators out of business – for a while at least.

In the nearby town, the few shops that were open were working safely under COVID restrictions. A tour of the big supermarket confirmed that staff and shoppers alike were taking their hygiene responsibilities seriously. There’s huge pride in this team for the support they’ve given to their local businesses and the relationship they have with owners and managers, with well over 90% of local food businesses having a hygiene rating of 5.

One fishing tackle shop, open legally and safely, had done so well during lockdown, they’d expanded into three or four neighbouring retail units. Meanwhile, the ‘enterprising’ activities of a local barber had been cut short thanks to the keen eye and timely intervention of the environmental health team, much to the appreciation of his competitors lining the same street, patiently and dutifully awaiting the lifting of lockdown restrictions.

Alongside the COVID outbreak response, compliance and enforcement work, progress was also being made in the investigation of a fatal workplace accident. This was sadly the second fatality the team was dealing with in the space of three years.

A warming cup of tea offered the chance to hear about the journeys into the profession of two of the team who had recently qualified as environmental health officers (EHOs). Each at very different stages in life, both had nevertheless shown tremendous dedication and perseverance through difficult and disrupted degree programmes and work placements. Neither had been served well by the changing landscape around the Environmental Health Registration Board (EHRB), their confidence provided by job security with a caring local employer, rather than by the sense of joining a rich and cohesive profession with CIEH at its centre. Difficult things to hear in my first few weeks here – difficult but necessary.

There were not enough hours in the day to spend enough quality time with everyone. The demands of my own job and family life put paid to the fantasy that maybe I could spend more time with this team, whose love for their work and care for each other was simply infectious. “Phil – I’ll be out doing checks on Saturday night if you want to tag along. My partner’s not very happy, but I’ve got a job to do and I do what it takes”. I couldn’t make it that Saturday, but maybe the invitation is still open for me.

What I learned that day is something about what CIEH has to do to make a difference to the daily lives of busy EHOs who make such a difference to the daily lives of so many others. We’ve got to try to be there when we’re needed, although we might not be needed all the time. We’ve got to become part of the conversation in environmental health teams like this, to provide guidance, support and confidence - not as a distant authority on the fringes, but as a community of connected environmental health professionals, part of something bigger than the view across the desk.

We’ve got to listen to the stories of our colleagues who’ve struggled to get into the profession, and the employers who struggled to find them, so that we help to fulfil the promise that this varied and impactful career offers.  And together, we’ve got to find a way of turning up the volume on the conversation about environmental health, to help shape the views of the public whose attention is drawn is so many different directions.

My heartfelt thanks go to the team who hosted me with such openness and generosity of spirit. I shall remember my grand day out with great fondness, but with a sense of responsibility to tackle at least some of the challenges I was able to experience first-hand. Maybe I could come back again sometime to see what difference we’ve started to make.

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