THE shortage of public health inspectors in Portland is making the profession unsafe for those who practise in the eastern parish.
“There are times when people threaten us and so sometimes we have to ask the police to intervene when we are visiting a site,” supervisor of the health department in Buff Bay, Samuel Roberts told the Jamaica Observer North East recently.
The problem, he said, would be addressed if inspectors were allowed to work in pairs, similar to what obtains for policemen and soldiers, especially since many of them are females.
“Sometimes I have to pull someone to accompany a female officer so she does not have to go alone into certain places,” said Roberts.
But there aren’t enough of them to go around, and reassigning someone ultimately impacts on how much ground can be covered on any given day.
The Ministry of Health’s website says a total of 300 officers should cover the system islandwide. However, in recent years, various references have been made about the staff shortage, which the University of Technology (UTech) quantifies as “about 40 per cent”. As recently as last year, chief public health inspector Everton Baker was reported as saying that the Kingston and St Andrew department, which should have at least 100 inspectors, only had 70.
In 2009, then minister of health Rudyard Spencer announced a training programme which he said would fill the 130 vacant positions in the island.
Roberts acknowledged that more persons are now being trained in the field and said part of the reason is that the job functions of health inspectors have broadened from what they were years ago when they were known as sanitary inspectors.
“When we used to be referred to as sanitary inspectors persons were not attracted to the profession, but as the scope of work has broadened we are seeing far more persons entering the profession,” he said, adding, “at that time persons couldn’t see that they would be doing meat inspection and inspecting hotels, and so on, as they thought they would only be inspecting toilets and so on.”
Roberts said when he graduated nearly two decades ago, there were only 12 other persons in his batch.
“Today the University of Technology is graduating as many as 40 persons each time,” he said.
Explaining the critical role public health inspectors play, Roberts said their job function is primarily preventative.
"Nurses do curative and we do preventative, and as the saying goes, prevention is better than cure," Roberts quipped.
High on the list of functions for public health inspectors is that of food safety, which covers inspection of supermarkets, shops, bars, restaurants, street-side vending and just about any establishment which deals with food.
“We inspect and certify these establishments and if they don't meet certain requirements, they will be asked to close or given time to comply,” he said.
Roberts said the Buff Bay department recently ordered a restaurant closed until the relevant adjustments were made.
Just last week, the Kingston and St Andrew Health Department ordered the kitchen at Bellevue Hospital closed after it failed an inspection.
“Once per month we will randomly check a streetside food vendor if we are passing and notice that they do not have a bucket pipe," the health inspector added.
The department also has its hands full with getting persons to keep up-to-date food handlers’ permits.
“They will say ‘mi nah cook food and sell, is just a little suck suck (skyjuice) mi a sell’, or another will say ‘I’m only serving alcohol at a bar’, but we have to explain to them that once they are handling anything that is consumed, other than medicine, they need a food handlers’ permit,” Roberts said.
Some persons, he said, avoid the process because they are illiterate and, as such, do not believe they can pass the test. But as Roberts explained, literacy does not prevent a person from acquiring a food handlers’ permit as the theoretical test may be taken orally.
Public health inspectors, he said, are also critical in the monitoring of slaughter houses to prevent diseased meat from being distributed.
“Tuberculosis is the big one, for pigs and cows, and so there is nervousness when we hear that meat is being sold without inspection,” Roberts told the Observer North East.
“We inspect these places for various reasons, for example, we look at the land space and whether the slaughtering will affect water bodies,” he said.
Roberts said his department is no longer facilitating animals being slaughtered at home for domestic consumption, as they can only monitor meat that is for sale.
Public health inspectors also see to the monitoring of solid waste disposal, water monitoring, and engage in public health education to community groups and schools, among others.
Additionally, the Buff Bay Department, Roberts said, is responsible for monitoring some 22 water supplies, routinely checking for the level of chlorine present, and it also monitors waste water on a regular basis.
“We take samples each month and submit to public labs which will tell us of any contaminant.”
The department is also responsible for approving the waste disposal system on building plans before final approval can be given by the parish council.