In Defense of Technicians
Editor's note: From time to time, Briefings will present points of view on issues and controversies in the profession. These pieces do not represent official NEHA positions; they are intended to provoke thought and discussion. Readers are encouraged to respond, and we welcome letters to the editor (please send your letter to email@example.com).
Peter Thornton, M.P.H., D.A.A.S., R.S., has sometimes been charged with trying to lower the status of the environmental health profession.
"Whereas, in reality," he told JEH, "what I'm trying to do is raise it."
Recently retired from his position as environmental administrator of the Volusia County Health Department in Florida, Thornton has himself been a high-achieving professional: a past president of NEHA and a Synder Award winner who has contributed more than three decades of creative thinking and problem solving to environmental health work. But he believes that the answer to the profession's perennial image problems is not to require that everyone staffing every department be a credentialed professional with a four-year degree. that kind of staffing would be "nice," he said, but it's not a realistic goal. The numbers of people entering accredited undergraduate environmental health programs are too small. Too many people are retiring. The pay is low.
"What little graduating class we have," he pointed out, "we often get just two or three years out of them before they move on to something else."
So it becomes a question of conserving the expertise that comes with a four-year education. Some aspects of environmental health work could be performed just fine, he believes, by technicians who have been trained on the job.
What sorts of work?
One example would be onsite sewage. While the designs of onsite systems reflect a public health analysis that requires the expertise of a supervisor or an engineer, the inspections themselves are fairly routine: "You're just checking the specs," he said: "if the concrete is right, if the legend on the tank is properly labeled, if the setbacks are met. It's just a matter of measuring."
Another example: Volusia County requires that the health department inspect every home irrigation system. During his tenure as environmental administrator, Thornton relied on technicians to check that each system had a testable backflow preventer, Technicians also verified that the system used self-regulating heads (a feature that promotes water conservation), measured setbacks to septic tanks, measured pipe depth, verified that "reused" water was identified with purple pipe, and checked that 25% of the property remained in a natural, unirrigated state (also in the interests of water conservation).
"As long as you're training them [technicians] correctly and you're measuring all those things, I don't see any reason a technician couldn't do that," Thornton said.
He did acknowledge some caveats. In the case of food safety and drinking water issues, a formal education is helpful because the environmental health practitioner needs to understand the micron. Even with straightforward measurements, as in the wastewater or irrigation examples, technicians need to be backed up by the expertise of professionals. So their use may not be practical in small jurisdictions that have only a couple of people on staff. But "if you have 40 people," he said, "I don't see any reason you shouldn't use technicians to do those routine kinds of things."
Another example: If a department has a sanitary-nuisance program, technicians can respond to complaints.
"If someone is complaining about a pile of garbage on a vacant lot," Thornton observed, "I don't see any reason to have a four-year degree to go out an identify that yeah, that's a pile of garbage on a vacant lot. …