Congresswoman Lawrence Introduces the Environmental Health Workforce Act
Date posted: Saturday, May 15, 2021
Blog poster: Doug Farquhar, JD
The Environmental Health Workforce Act (H.R. 2661) was introduced by Representative Brenda Lawrence (D-Michigan) on April 19, 2021. The act would require the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to:
- Develop model standards and guidelines for credentialing environmental health workers.
- Require the Secretary to develop a comprehensive and coordinated plan to develop the environmental health workforce.
- Issue a report on best practices.
- Make credentialed environmental health workers eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
As many National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) members know, the environmental health profession has seen a significant decrease in workforce capacity since 2008. This public health workforce, second in size only to nursing, is facing challenges to maintain sufficient staff to perform environmental health services.
Since 2008, 22% of state and local environmental health jobs have been lost (National Association of County and City Health Officials, 2019). Insufficient staffing has been reported in 64% of state environmental health programs, 60% of local programs, and 67% of tribal programs mainly due to the strain the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the profession (National Environmental Health Association, 2019). Workers express concern regarding insufficient access to training and the high level of burnout. This trend will be exacerbated with the oncoming retirement of the Baby Boom generation.
Funding for environmental health workforce training and retention has decreased. Local health department budgets have either stagnated or decreased in 2019, with over one half of local health departments experiencing a reduction. As this nation struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic, the local public health workforce is strained, with essential environmental health services being neglected as resources are being redirected to the pandemic response.
At present, only 27 states require a credential for environmental health workers. NEHA believes that education and training of existing and new environmental health professionals should be a national public health goal.
“Education and training for new and existing environment health professionals is vital to our national public health. Public health crises, like the Flint water crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, underscore the critical role that the environmental health workforce plays in keeping our communities safe and healthy,” said Representative Lawrence. “Environmental health workers are more important now than ever before. I’m proud to introduce legislation that invests in and strengthens our environmental health workforce while providing them with the necessary tools and training so they can better serve our country.”
These impacts on the environmental health workforce are occurring in light of the Infrastructure bills proposed by the Biden Administration. The laudable goal of these bills is to increase job opportunities for people in the U.S., but at a time when the nation is lacking a sufficient number of trained and certified environmental health workers. The environmental health profession is needed to rebuild drinking water systems; build, renovate, and retrofit housing; and rebuild the transportation network to improve air quality and limit greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the efforts in the proposed bills will be waylaid or incomplete without an adequate and skilled environmental health workforce.
The bill is endorsed by NEHA, the Association of Environmental Health Academic Programs, and the National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council.
NEHA has drafted a sign-on letter of support to congressional leaders that highlights the importance of this bill. Organizations and individuals can sign-on to the letter online to show their support. Sign-on letters are a way to amplify the impact of the support for this bill.
We would appreciate having your support on this important piece of legislation. Please fill out the form to be included in the list of supporting organizations.
Through the enactment of the Environmental Health Workforce Act, this nation can ensure that its environmental health workforce is trained, credentialed, and ready to handle the environmental threats that impact public health.
National Association of County and City Health Officials. (2019). National profile of local health departments. NACCHO Webpage
National Environmental Health Association. (2020). COVID-19 environmental health workforce needs assessment II report. PDF
About blog poster: Doug Farquhar is the director of Government Affairs at the NEHA in Denver, Colorado.