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June 16, 2010

It Can Be a Dirty Job, But Someone's Gotta Love It

Public health inspectors - the pro-active protectors of health

Every time you eat in a restaurant or swim in a public pool, you have a public health inspector to thank for protecting your health.

"Public health inspectors are working in the community on the front lines. They're out in the public facilities, trained to look for and prevent health hazards that pose a risk to the public," says Dr. Michael Routledge, Medical Officer of Health for the Winnipeg Health Region. "We're grateful their proactive, protective work helps keep people healthy and prevents illness, which is a much better outcome than having to provide care to large numbers of people when they become sick."

Both the City of Winnipeg (in the inner city) and the Province of Manitoba (in the suburbs) have public health inspectors working in the community to ensure people live in safe housing, eat safe food in restaurants and swim in safe pools.

Public health inspectors from both the city and province are also responsible for ensuring living conditions do not pose a public health concern. In many cases inspectors will work with mental health and social services in the health region to address persons living in unsafe conditions.

Public health inspector Melanie Cyrenne with the province notes one home visit as an example. "We got a call from a landlord who went to repair the air conditioning for a tenant. The suite was filled with two feet worth of garbage, junk and rotting food. The smell was pretty bad." she recalls. "The woman had lost someone important in her life, and went into a depression. We went in, set her up with the proper agencies, and helped her get on her feet."

Cyrenne has many memorable stories in her five year career as a public health inspector. Hoarding has prompted many calls as of late. Often hoarding will spread to the yard and attract rodents and other animals that can spread disease. However, health inspectors do not have jurisdiction over an owner occupied residence.

"If someone wants to live like that, we try to work with them but if they don't want our help we can't really do much for them but call mental health or the mobile crisis unit of the health region. It seems that we end up doing a lot of referrals in situations were there are issues in owner occupied homes. If an owner occupied home needs to be closed the Medical Officer of Health will issue the order, not the public health inspector."

But inspectors can respond to complaints from rental properties. One property Cyrenne was called into had disastrous results. First responders originally received the call of a person in distress in a residence. Unfortunately they couldn't get to the person at risk because garbage, clothes and piles of material prevented them from even getting in the door.

"There are people living in distress. When we see circumstances like that, ninety-nine percent of the time we call mental health or social services to support them."

In restaurants, cleanliness of the facilities is important. Proper hand washing stations are also a priority given hand washing can help prevent the spread of germs and food borne illness.

"Hands should only be washed in one sink. Washing in the same sink as veggies could be risking cross contamination," says Cyrenne. "The station has to be equipped with soap and paper towels."

Cross contamination is also a concern both for preparation and food storage. Are proper sanitizers being used to clean work surfaces? Ensuring food is cooked and stored at the appropriate temperatures are other things public health inspectors look for to help prevent food borne illness.

Public health inspectors make sure public pools and whirlpools - even wading pools - have the right water chemistry. To prevent the spread of communicable diseases, swimming pools, whirlpools and other recreational waters are inspected to ensure water quality measures are maintained. "If the chlorine level is too high, there is irritation to the swimmer or bather," says Cyrenne. "If something is wrong with the water chemistry, you may not see the bottom of the pool. That presents a risk because if someone's drowning, you can't see them." They also make sure there are no slip or safety hazards and ensure pool rails and surrounding decks are intact.

What are public health inspectors keeping us safe from?

In restaurants

Food borne illness poses serious health risks. The good news is that they are preventable through hand washing, avoiding cross contamination and storing food at appropriate temperatures.

At pools

Skin infections can occur from a poorly operated recreational water facility. Skin infections such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa will cause a mild to severe skin rash and will require medical attention. Athlete's foot and ringworm can occur from walking on contaminated decks, floors and shower stalls.

Fast facts

  • There are an estimated 11 million cases of food borne illness in Canada. This translates to over $12 billion in costs per year.

  • The City of Winnipeg* has 14 health inspectors, one supervisor and one coordinator.

  • The City of Winnipeg is responsible for inspecting 2119 food service establishments in their jurisdiction.

  • The province of Manitoba's public health inspectors are responsible for inspecting 2415 facilities within the city's perimeter.

  • On average, 141 mobile food units, 133 special events, 145 day cares, 146 residential care facilities and 13 body modification establishments are inspected by the city every year.

  • The city offers 14 courses from September to June every year to certify food handlers, which is a requirement under a food services by-law.

  • Last year, 4400 people received a certificate in food handling.

  • Of the 138 pools in the city's jurisdiction, 55 are wading pools.

  • The young, elderly and immune suppressed are at greatest risk for food borne illness.

*The City of Winnipeg refers to the City of Winnipeg's public health inspectors, who are responsible for enforcing the Foodservices Bylaw, Public Health Act and the Non-Smokers Health Protection Act in the inner city. The province of Manitoba's public health inspectors work in the city of Winnipeg's suburbs and enforce the Public Health Act.

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