Shortage of enviro health officers points to rise of climate health impacts
Sandra Edmunds | 18 December 2017
MARKET PULSE: There’s a big shortage of environmental health officers in Australia with Central Queensland University graduates quick to find 100 per cent placement. The reason why there is a shortage does not make for happy holiday reading, but it does make for critically important and urgent thinking.
Australia needs to train more environmental health officers to cope with the increased prevalence of disasters and disease outbreaks due to climate change, say leaders in the field.
Environmental Health Australia national vice president Philip Swain said research undertaken back in the 1980s into climate change and its impact is now coming to fruition.
“It’s amazing how accurate some of those predictions have been,” he said. “We’re already seeing that happen with mosquito-borne disease. The spread of Barmah Forest [virus], Ross River virus and to a lesser extent Murray Valley encephalitis in Australia is a classic case of something that has been influenced by climate change.
“It’s come across the top of Australia and now Barmah Forest and Ross River virus are endemic through Western Australia, right throughout the south west – that just didn’t exist 30 years ago. There was no such thing as Ross River Virus in WA. And that sort of thing is undoubtedly going to get worse.”
Central Queensland University environmental health academic Dr Lisa Bricknell said with rising temperatures, there’ll be more health problems linked to environmental conditions, including more food-borne illnesses like salmonella and larger mosquito-breeding zones, leading to dengue, Ross River and Zika virus.
“In addition, we’re having more frequent natural events leading to disasters, and environmental health officers (EHOs) have an important role in both prevention and recovery.”
Concern is mounting as local and state government departments struggle to find enough qualified environmental health officers (EHOs). In fact, global jobs site Indeed recently revealed that positions for environmental health officers are actually the hardest roles to fill in Australia.
While trained EHOs had been coming from Ireland, changes to the skilled migrant visa has halted the flow of graduates arriving from Dublin University. In addition, many EHOs are retiring.
Dr Bricknell said most of the shortages are at the local government level.
“They’ll advertise and quite often people will move from one local government to another and then that will still obviously leave a gap somewhere,” she said. “Quite often they are in regional and remote areas.
“They might not be the one going out and spreading insecticide but they are certainly going to be the one keeping an eye on breeding areas,” she said. “If you don’t have an EHO to keep an eye on the breeding areas you end up with more cases of – potentially in the northern climes – dengue fever.”
And the Zika virus is causing bigger concerns
The Zika virus is also a major concern.
“If it got into our mosquito population, we could have an issue with that,” she said.
Mr Swain agreed that regional and remote locations were struggling to fill positions.
“Some of that is tyranny of distance because you’re asking people to do work over vast areas,” he said.
Mr Swain, who is based in Perth, works on a contractual basis for the Shire of Ngaanyatjarraku, covering millions of hectares of Aboriginal land in Western Australia. He goes out in the field for eight to 10 days and does his office-based work from Perth.
This is not a typical model and he says regional areas are finding it difficult to fill roles because of contractions in local government and an inability to offer competitive packages with housing and motor vehicles.
Mr Swain noted that half the top 10 hardest roles to fill in Australia were health or allied health professions. He believes the federal government needs to contribute more funding to training.
“To me, that’s quite telling that those positions are hard to fill because there’s not enough people to fill them – the reason there’s not enough people available to fill them is because they’re difficult and expensive professions to train people to do.
“If I have a personal criticism about the way the way niche professions are being supplied in Australia, it’s about the university sector and how it’s being forced into essentially providing courses that make money.
“Applied science-based courses where you have to put a small group of students into laboratories to learn are not profitable for universities. Putting 200 people into a lecture theatre is profitable.”
Rockhampton pioneers a cadetship program to help with shortages
According to Dr Bricknell, collaboration between local government and universities is going some way to addressing the shortage. For example, Rockhampton Regional Council pioneered a cadetship program.
“They have found it very difficult over the years to recruit environmental health staff,” she said. “They came to us and said, ‘If you guys are willing to do a degree, we’d like to talk about hiring cadets and actually putting them through part-time while they work with us.’
“Now Rockhampton have been doing that for quite a number of years and it’s extremely successful.
“That ‘grow your own’ thing is something we’re really trying to work with councils on. Consider finding someone who looks like a good candidate locally, put them on as a trainee or a cadet, and then put them through university with us. You’re likely to find someone who’ll stay.”
Increasing the profile of the profession among school leavers is also important.
“It’s a profession that people don’t know very much about, but the potential for employment is really high,” Dr Bricknell said.
Degree programs struggling
This lack of awareness means the degree programs are struggling.
“Tasmania is in the process of losing their degree; there’s no undergraduate degree in South Australia anymore,” she said.
NSW and Victoria both have one accredited degree, while WA has one undergraduate degree and one postgraduate degree. Queensland is spoiled for choice with both Griffith University and the University of Sunshine Coast offering on-campus degrees and Central Queensland University offering on-campus degrees in Cairns, Townsville, Rockhampton and Bundaberg, as well as off-campus degrees.
The demand for EHOs is proving lucrative for CQUniversity graduates, who have a 100 per cent employment record within their first 12 months after graduation.