NEHA January/February 2019 Journal of Environmental Health

22 Volume 81 • Number 6 A D VANC EME N T O F T H E PRACTICE Introduction Environmental health workers (EHWs) make up 8% of the local, state, and federal public health workforce and constitute the largest group of governmental public health workers, after administrative or clerical per- sonnel and public health nurses (Beck, Boul- ton, & Coronado, 2014). EHWs ensure that the air we breathe, food we eat, and water we drink is safe. They work in the realms of land use, community design, and housing to create health-promoting environments (Srinivasan, O’Fallon, & Dearry, 2003). Their responsibilities are broad, including assessing, communicating, and managing risks related to air quality, drinking water and food safety, industrial hygiene, healthy housing, waste management and disposal, and vector control (National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], & American Public Health Association, 2001). In addi- tion, the duties of EHWs are increasing in scope to include developing programs for climate change adaptation planning; envi- ronmental health tracking, which involves monitoring and surveillance of environmen- tal hazards and associated exposures and health effects (CDC, 2018); and conducting health impact assessments (Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, 2011). As the environmental health workload is broadening, however, it is necessary to eval- uate the capacity of EHWs. The environmental health workforce is strained by reductions in federal funding and decreasing capacity, especially in terms of workforce training (Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, 2011, 2014), as well as a dearth of leaders who are ready to fill newly vacated positions due to high rates of turnover, retirement, and voluntary turn- over from the high percentage of workers who intend to leave their positions (Herring, 2006; Sellers et al., 2015). With a fluctuating workforce and changing scope of work, it is important to understand the skills and skill gaps of the workforce, as well as to explore potential differences by level of government, as environmental health agency functions can diverge in state versus local settings. Identifying skill gaps and potential train- ing needs—and specifying these by level of government—enables application of relevant solutions to the appropriate setting. Prior to the 2014 Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS), little information has been available from the perspective of individual state and local health department workers on their tasks, responsibilities, and skill gaps (Sellers et al., 2015). This article, therefore, serves to address this gap in the literature by charac- terizing EHWs, and comparing and contrast- ing the following characteristics between state health agencies (SHAs) and local health departments (LHDs): 1) main roles of EHWs, 2) tasks that EHWs report as “very important” to their daily work, and 3) self- reported skill gaps of EHWs. Abs t r ac t Efforts to characterize environmental health workers (EHWs) are needed in order to strengthen the field. Data from the 2014 Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey were used to describe the self-reported roles, important daily work tasks, and skill gaps of EHWs and to compare and contrast these characteristics between state health agencies (SHAs) and local health departments (LHDs). While EHWs at SHAs and LHDs share overall similarities in terms of important daily work tasks and skill gaps, the differences could reflect that the strengths of local-level environmental work fall within communicating and community interaction, whereas state-level strengths reside in administrative, policy, and scientific functions. Our findings also highlight a need for EHWs to strengthen their skills in budget- and policy-related competencies, especially at the local level. We found that number of years in current position was a significant predictor of the number of skill gaps, suggesting the utility of a peer-learning network. Leila Heidari, MPH Theresa Chapple-McGruder, MPH, PhD de Beaumont Foundation Sandra Whitehead, PhD National Environmental Health Association Brian C. Castrucci, MA de Beaumont Foundation David T. Dyjack, DrPH, CIH National Environmental Health Association Characterizing the Roles and Skill Gaps of the Environmental Health Workforce in State and Local Health Departments