Since the SARS epidemic in 2003, Hong Kong people have become far more concerned about issues of environmental and personal hygiene and matters of food safety. One consequence of this is that the government's Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has been obliged to increase resources and, because of this, began a major recruitment campaign in June.
"We need a stronger workforce to meet the public's demand for our services," says Lo Siu-fung, grade manager for health inspectorate officers. Therefore, around 120 newly appointed inspectors will be in place by the end of the year, since the full application, selection and interview process takes between four and six months.
"We place great emphasis on the devotion, integrity and character of candidates because they are frontline officers responsible for providing a safe and healthy environment for local residents and visitors to Hong Kong," Mr Lo says. If successful, applicants must undergo a 10-week full-time training course and take a qualifying examination. Training continues throughout the first year to enhance their skills and knowledge in handling food safety incidents, environmental hygiene matters and crisis situations.
After graduating from La Salle College, Mr Lo joined what was then the Urban Services Department as a health inspector. That was 30 years ago and many changes have taken place in the meantime.
"When I started, the work was not as wide-ranging," he recalls. "Previously, there were not many senior positions in this field. However, the needs of society changed and the job responsibilities increased, so the career prospects became much better."
Mr Lo's present position entails mainly administrative duties, such as the development of HR management strategies, performance assessments, posting arrangements, and overseeing training and development needs for health inspectors. "I must be familiar with all job functions and operations of the department," he says. "I am also expected to have a clear understanding of local conditions in the different districts."
Almost inevitably, this involves dealing with a constant flow of email correspondence. Mr Lo usually starts the day by ploughing through this. What guides him is the department's aim of maintaining Hong Kong's reputation as a city with high standards of food safety and environmental hygiene. "From the early days of Urban Services, this has always been our core responsibility," Mr Lo emphasises.
The department currently has three main branches: the centre for food safety, the environmental hygiene branch, and the administration and development branch.
The first of these plans and directs the implementation of policies on food safety control. It is also responsible for negotiation and liaison with the mainland and overseas authorities, and oversees all regulations relating to food safety control.
The environmental hygiene branch takes care of issues such as licensing and inspection of food premises, public cleansing, meat inspection, hawker control, managing public markets and pest control. The department's health inspectors may be required to check premises to ensure statutory regulations are being observed and, if not, to initiate prosecutions.
"For field operations, it may be necessary to mobilise staff and come up with contingency plans," Mr Lo explains. "For example, they might need to act swiftly to eliminate mosquitoes if there was a case of Japanese encephalitis."
Meanwhile, the administration and development branch looks after HR management, IT, finance and accounting. IT also reviews policies concerning markets, toilets, crematoria and cemeteries, as well as providing information and education for the public.
For Mr Lo, one of the main attractions of the job has been the many training and development opportunities including some held outside Hong Kong. He has taken part in programmes or conferences in the mainland, the UK, the US, Singapore and Malaysia, and earlier this year completed a two-week training course on national studies in Beijing. This covered topics such as China's economic development, the national education system and diverse cultural issues.
"Health inspectors must have an up-to-date understanding of what is happening in the community," Mr Lo says. "That even means knowing about expected changes in trade, advances in technology, and global trends in public health. When I first joined the department, there were no such things as GM foods, nutrition labelling, contract management, SARS or avian flu. These are hot topics now, so we need to understand the science behind them and public attitudes towards them."