“It’s 3:00 pm on a beautiful Friday afternoon. You decide to conduct an inspection at a restaurant that has a good history regarding food handling and compliance with the food regulation. When you enter the kitchen, you notice it is filled with a layer of sewage water up to your ankle. Staff are still cooking and the restaurant is full with patrons… What do you do now?”
Growing up I always associated the study of science with that of entering a field in medicine, and I assumed I’d be following that trajectory as well. At the time I was only aware of two pathways post-undergrad: go to med school or enter a Master’s program. But as my graduation approached, I began to wonder: were any of those really for me?
It was by chance that I came across Ryerson University’s Public Health and Safety program, and having already completed a Bachelors of Science at the University of Toronto, I qualified to enter the two-year fast track stream. The program covered multiple topics ranging from public health law, pathophysiology, the built environment, epidemiology, and infection control. It provided the theoretical foundation that allowed me to obtain a practicum at a health unit, where I subsequently gained hands-on experience with the responsibilities of being a Public Health Inspector (PHI). Then in 2016, after completing my practicum, submitting two comprehensive reports, and passing a nerve-wracking 75-minute oral board exam (ominously deemed “THE B.O.C.”), I obtained my Certificate in Public Health Inspection from the Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors.
I have worked as a PHI on both the food safety and health hazards team. In these roles, I worked under the authority of the Health Protection and Promotion Act (HPPA), and conducted inspections of public premises to ensure compliance with the HPPA, attendant regulations, and other provincial legislation. I also conducted investigations of suspected rabies exposures, mould complaints, and other environmental hazards such as asbestos and lead. The overall purpose was to ensure that there were no health hazards present that could pose a risk to members of the public. Contrary to popular belief, PHIs do not go into premises “guns-blazing” and ready to “shut the place down”. Rather, problem solving, effective communication, and the provision of education are large components of the job to ensure that operators are aware of the hazards present, what risks those hazards pose, and the corrective actions required to mitigate them. Legal enforcement is only used in the event education fails or if the health hazard is too large of a risk to be rectified immediately. Working with repeat offenders and finding the right balance between education and enforcement are some of the challenges I’ve encountered as a PHI.
Currently, I work in the communicable diseases department where I conduct case and contact management of blood-borne diseases in order to determine sources of exposure and prevent transmission of disease. I also conduct Infection Prevention and Control (IPAC) audits of regulated healthcare professionals to identify IPAC deviations from provincial best practices. This role has allowed me to explore a new realm of public health, and highlights the multiple knowledge avenues one can explore as a PHI. Although the content of the work is different, the risk assessment framework I developed when on the food safety and health hazards team is still used during every IPAC audit and case investigation.
A common question people ask me is whether or not being a PHI has affected my ability to eat at restaurants. In short, the answer is yes. However, this isn’t meant negatively because I’ve inspected “dirty” restaurants or have seen poor food handling practices. Rather, it is because being a PHI overall has helped me look at everyday life with a different lens. It has given me the chance to experience the “behind-the-scenes” moments that I would otherwise never get the opportunity to see, and the risk assessment mindset I employ at work never really turns itself off. Many times I catch myself conducting quick inspections of places I visit; when I enter a restaurant, I’ll unconsciously look at how food is being handled or for common signs of pest infestations. When visiting a public pool, I’ll look to see if it meets certain critical safety criteria to ensure it is safe to swim in. Even when at a dental or medical appointment, I catch myself observing infection control practices performed by staff and assessing whether there is any risk. I feel like being a PHI has made me a more informed individual, and that is one of the main things I love about the job.
Being a PHI is a rewarding and challenging career, and it can place you in some pretty complex, unique, and diverse situations. If you enjoy working independently, have a passion for public health, and are seeking a lifetime of continuous learning, then being a Public Health Inspector may be for you.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employer.