Every time you enter a building, you put your life in the hands of the people who designed and constructed it and those who now maintain it and all the systems inside.
If they have done their jobs right, you have nothing to worry about. The walls are solid. The roof is supported. The floors are steady beneath your feet. There are no rats or termites hiding in the walls. The air inside is safe to breathe. If a fire breaks out, an alarm will warn you, and sprinklers may activate to douse the flames.
You don’t think about these things when you enter a building. Environmental health practitioners who specialize in the safety of our built environment do.
Built environment specialists are environmental health practitioners who monitor the safety of homes, apartments, schools and other buildings. They are trained to assess basic structural soundness and to inspect buildings for evidence of poor maintenance, infestation, fire hazards, blocked exits, lead paint, poor air or water quality, improper sanitation and other potential health concerns.
They often work for government agencies to help enforce codes and standards, and they may be empowered to issue citations, assess fines and even lock down unsafe properties.
Other built environment specialists focus on design and planning, applying the latest research about potential hazards, such as asbestos or mold, to improve building design and reduce risks.
Built environment specialists usually work a standard 40-hour week. They spend some time in an office, writing reports and coordinating their work with other professionals. The rest of their time is spent inspecting buildings.
The work can be fast-paced, with tight deadlines and multiple pressures.
Building inspections fall into two general categories: Routine and problem-focused. Routine inspections involve verifying that a building believed to be safe is, in fact, safe. This involves visually examining various parts of the building according to a checklist. Equipment also may be used to assess air quality and test for other potential issues.
Problem-focused inspections happen when a complaint has been filed or the inspector has a reason to believe a structure is unsafe. In this case, the built environment specialist may encounter unpleasant or even dangerous conditions, as well as potential opposition from building owners or management. There may be times when the job can get confrontational, if owners or management oppose inspections.
Most environmental health practitioners earn a four-year college degree with a scientific major. Some states offer certification for environmental health practitioners who have a specified amount of work experience and pass an examination. Many built environment specialists have a master’s degree in environmental health science or civil engineering.
Because environmental health practitioners must work with many different types of people and report their findings, good written and communication skills are essential. It also helps to have acute senses and be highly observant.
In high school
- Take plenty of courses in math, life sciences, physical sciences and English/writing.
- Seek opportunities to volunteer with environmental protection or public health organizations or businesses.
- Design a science fair project that addresses how a building can impact someone’s health and how to reduce risk.
- Major in civil engineering, chemistry, biology, geology, hydrology, physics, environmental engineering or some other scientific area.
- Enroll in a summer program or internship that focuses on environmental health.
- American Society of Safety Engineers
- Association of Environmental Health Academic Programs
- Choose a Career in Environmental Health
- Environmental Health Services Branch
- National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
- National Library of Medicine