The role of an Environmental Health Officer

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Today, I want to talk about the role of Environmental Health Officers (EHOs).

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They are Environmental Health professionals who work for local authorities to ensure public health. They have many duties and powers which can impact your business, knowledge of these will be beneficial for your business. For example; it will help you be prepared for your food hygiene inspection and know what to do if the Environmental Health Officer visits in response to an alleged complaint.

By the end of this blog, you will understand the various duties that Environmental Health Officers have, their powers and how these may relate to your business.

What is an Environmental Health Officer/ Environmental Health Practitioner?

Environmental Health Officers are Environmental Health professionals who work in local authority Environmental Health departments to protect public health. They enforce government regulations such as environmental protection/ environmental pollution, food safety and health, and safety legislation.

In relation to food safety, they can inspect premises, investigate food complaints and food poisoning incidents, and take products for sampling.  They follow a national agreement on food law enforcement and the relevant Codes of Practice.

Besides working in the public sector, some EHO’s work in the private sector i.e. as advisors for private sector companies, however, they are not the focus of this blog.

What’s the difference between an Environmental Health Officer and an Environmental Health Technician?

Environmental Health Officers may be supported by Environmental Health Technicians, Technical Officers, or officers with a similar title such as Food Safety Specialist or Food Safety Officer.

They are all Environmental Health professionals employed by local authorities and working to protect public health.

An Environmental Health Technician is able to enforce certain food safety laws and inspect most types of food premises, but generally, they do not have the same level of powers and qualifications as an Environmental Health Officer.

What training do Environmental Health Officers/ Environmental Health Practitioners undertake?

To qualify as an EHO or an Environmental health practitioner (EHP), extensive training is required.

For example; there’s an academic study part. I undertook a postgraduate course (MSc in Environmental Health), a practical food inspection course, a professional interview and exam.

Then on the job training with a local authority whereby I shadowed other officers doing practical training and completed a portfolio that totalled 86 reports!

EHOs do continuing professional development and attend training courses to maintain their competence.

If you want to know more about the current qualification route, I recommend visiting the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health website.

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What duties does an Environmental Health Officer carry out?

EHOs working for local authorities have many duties. They may also work with other health professionals such as the local authority Public Health department on health initiatives or community groups.

While the focus of this article is on EHOs who enforce food safety legislation, some EHOs in local authorities deal with environmental issues, housing conditions and health and safety (i.e. workplace accidents).

Normally, an EHO has a particular area in a district in which they:

  • Respond to infectious disease notifications
  • Work with government agencies such as the police, fire brigade and HMRC and other organisations
  • Provide advice to help food business. This may also include delivering educational talks.
  • Inspect businesses and assessing hygiene standards to ensure compliance
  • Compile court cases

The thing I loved about working in local government was that no two days were ever the same! Anything could happen and your whole week could change just like that. The role involves the ability to work to tight deadlines, good time management and good decision-making skills.

What does a typical week in the life of an Environmental Health Officer look like?

It can be very busy working in an Environmental Health department in local authorities.

A To Do List on a Clipboard

When I worked in local government, here’s what a typical week looked like for me:

  • Inspecting different types of food premises. Restaurants, cafes, takeaways, hotels, hospitals, schools, care homes, nurseries, food manufacturers, home bakers, you name it. I would also score the business and where necessary give them a Food Hygiene Rating.
  • Responding to/ investigating complaints and infectious disease notifications. The complaints could range from food poisoning allegations to pest infestations. I’ve dealt with some seriously weird and wonderful complaints over the years!
  • Admin! (Let’s face it we all have to do it!). Such as inputting inspections into the database and writing letters to businesses where improvements are needed.

What powers does an Environmental Health Officer have?

EHOs/ Environmental Health Practitioners working for local authorities have extensive powers under the legislation they are authorised to enforce, including:

Enter premises at all reasonable hours (e.g., during working hours)

This is known as power or right of entry. They can enter at “any reasonable time”. This is normally the hours that your business is operating. This means if you are open and they require entry to carry out an inspection, you must allow them entry to all areas of your premises.

Investigate complaints

If an EHO receives a complaint such as a food complaint or alleged food poisoning, they have powers to investigate.

Take samples

EHOs may take samples of food, food contact materials and surfaces. They may take samples if they believe offences have been committed. This could be as evidence or to have them analysed in a lab i.e. to look for bacteria or other organisms.

Order that premises, equipment or food are left undisturbed

This could be following an accident or incident such as a food poisoning outbreak.

Take evidence

Such as photographs, records and documentation if they suspect offences have been committed.

Question staff and take statements

An EHO may also speak to or ask questions of any staff member. This is normal as part of a food hygiene inspection, so don’t panic. For example; they could simply be asking your staff about why they wear protective clothing when working with food or how they wash their hands. However, if they suspect offences have been committed, they can also take statements.

Seize food, equipment or packaging

An EHO has powers to seize and detain food that they determine to be unfit for human consumption. They can also have the food destroyed. They may also seize other items such as equipment and packaging if they are considered to demonstrate that an offence is or has been committed.

Use the powers of a Police Officer to gain entry to the premises

If entry to a premises is refused an EHO may gain entry with a Police officer, once they have obtained an entry warrant signed by a Magistrate.

An EHO does not have the power to arrest anybody.

What legal notices can an Environmental Health Officer serve?

Hygiene Improvement Notice

This type of notice may be served where there is a record of non-compliance. The notice would set out breaches of legislation that must be put right, work required to comply with the law and timescales for completion. If a Hygiene Improvement Notice is not complied with by the date specified, the business is liable to prosecution.

Hygiene Emergency Prohibition Notice

This type of notice may be served where there are more serious breaches of the law and where there is a real and imminent risk of injury to public health. For example; insanitary premises, severe pest infestations and unsafe processes. The notice would stop the use of an entire premises, part of the premises, or a specific activity or piece of equipment.

In line with court procedures, an EHO must apply to the Magistrates court and giving evidence on their findings to obtain a court order. Once granted, a business cannot operate until permission is given by the Environmental Health department. To operate the premises, a particular process whilst such a notice or Order is in place is an offence.

What actions might an Environmental Health Officer take after visiting your business?

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An Officer may take a variety of actions including:

  • Provide advice on what you need to do to comply with food safety regulations.
  • Orally or in writing request matters are put right in a reasonable time to protect public health.
  • Serve a Hygiene Improvement Notice requiring that matters are put right. 
  • Serve a Hygiene Emergency Prohibition Notice if there is a serious risk to health.
  • Prosecute individuals or a business.
  • Get individuals prohibited from running food businesses.

What should you do when an Environmental Health Officer visits your business?

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The proper approach when first dealing with an Environmental Health Officer can affect the final outcome. Make sure your staff know how to deal with an Environmental Health Officer. Here’s some pointers:

  • Ask for identification.  If identification is not offered the Officer has no powers to investigate or inspect the premises.  The Environmental Health Officer may take with them any person they consider necessary for the visit.  The identification of these people should be requested.
  • Ascertain the purpose of the visit e.g., food complaint investigation, routine inspection, etc.
  • The person in charge should accompany the EHO and take notes of any concerns, comments, materials taken and any other action.
  • All employees should be polite and helpful.
  • If the visit is in regard to a food complaint, as much information as possible should be requested and recorded.

The Caution and Environmental Health Officers

EHOs must caution individuals if they consider that offences have been committed so that they may use the evidence in a prosecution.

The caution is:

“You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something that you later rely on in court.  Anything you do say may be given in evidence”.

If employees are cautioned, the Manager should be notified immediately. It is likely that a company will wish to seek legal advice. In most circumstances employees should only confirm their name, work address and that they wish to seek legal advice before answering any further questions.

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