What do food safety and embalming have in common? Plenty, health inspector says

From restaurants to funeral homes — a public health inspector shared her unconventional career transition with attendees at the Alberta conference for the Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors.

Public health inspector finds common ground in new career in funeral industry

Carla Eskow is working on a diploma in funeral services, an industry that as a public health inspector, she once knew little about. (David Thurton/ CBC)

The first time Carla Eskow walked into a funeral home to do a public health inspection, she didn't have a clue what she was doing.

It was 2004 and Eskow had only been a Toronto public health inspector for two years when her boss assigned her to inspect a funeral home. She was accustomed to inspecting the safety and health standards of restaurant kitchens, not coffins and embalming tools.

"I really didn't know what to expect," she said.

The inspection didn't last long. Eskow took a quick look at the scalpels and surgical scissors and told staff "don't poke yourself."

That experience led Eskow down a new path — she's currently working towards a diploma in funeral services at Calgary's Mount Royal University. She shared her insights with colleagues Friday at the Alberta conference for the Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors.

When she's done the program and receives her licence, she can work in a funeral home, doing tasks such as embalming. 

Eskow knows embalming isn't exactly a natural career progression from being a public health inspector. But they go hand-in-hand.

"There are health inspectors at this conference who are surprised," Eskow said. "I don't know of another health inspector who has taken this route. So yes, I would say I am breaking the mold."

Health inspectors need to study up

Under Alberta public health regulations, health inspectors not only oversee food establishments but also funeral homes. But according to Alberta Health Services, funeral home inspections only happen on a complaint basis.

Evelien Meyer, Alberta president of the Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors, said therefore most health inspectors don't have much experience with funeral homes.

"Sometimes we are called to do an inspection of an industry that we don't know very much about," Meyer said. "But it is always good to be prepared and to learn more about the industry so that we really know what we are dealing with."

In Alberta, health inspectors don’t routinely review funeral homes. Instead, inspections happen on a complaint basis. (Scary Side of Earth/ Flickr/ Creative Commons)

Funeral facilities are inspected to ensure they are safe for workers and families of the deceased.

Funeral home staff work with sharp tools like surgical scissors and scalpels. If those tools and surfaces are not sanitized properly, they could lead to injuries or transfer pathogens from the corpses.

Embalming fluids, like formaldehyde, are carcinogenic and proper clothing like gloves, gowns and masks must be worn when working with them.

Even though Eskow hasn't finished her course, she sees how her background in public health inspecting will give her an edge in when it comes to safety and health in her new career — and bring her back to the basics. 

"Grassroots public health started with clean water, proper disposal of sewage and proper disposal of dead bodies," Eskow said.

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David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories. He can be reached at david.thurton@cbc.ca