Ethical conduct of Environmental Health Practitioners: a constitutional imperative

The fundamental duty of Environmental Health Practitioners (EHPs) is to serve humankind, to safeguard public health, and to protect them against diseases. This involves:

  • inspecting premises,
  • issuing of certificates of acceptability and business licences,
  • serving notices, building plan approvals,
  • taking water and food samples, and investigating of communicable diseases amongst others.

This invariably affects the rights and interests of all the citizens. As a result, this compels them to conform to the basic principles of ethics such as honesty, trust, courtesy, fairness, transparency, promise keeping, respect for others and maintaining high integrity which serves as a moral compass. EHPs interface a great deal with key stakeholders in communities such as business sector, nongovernmental organisations, state departments and individual community members. It is in this regard that they should take heed of the rights of these stakeholders as entrenched in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. It is worth noting that EHPs are vulnerable to perverse incentives and kickbacks from scrupulous business owners and should avoid such temptation. Section 33 (2) of the Constitution states that everyone whose rights have been adversely affected by the administrative actions has the right to be given written reasons. Most importantly, EHPs must serve humankind without prejudice and therefore their behaviour and actions must be beyond reproach.

Administrative decisions and actions

Chapter 10 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act 108 of 1996, section 195 (1) (a), (b),(d), (e), (f), (g), outlines the basic values and principles governing public administration are outlined and EHPs as public servants are expected to uphold them at all times.Some of  these basic values and principles as stipulated in section 195 (1) are the following:

  • A high standard of professional ethics must be promoted and maintained;
  • Efficient, economic and effective use of resources must be promoted;
  • Services must be provided impartially, fairly, equitably and without bias;
  • People’s needs must be responded to, and the public must be encouraged to participate in policy making;
  • Public administration must be accountable;
  • Transparency must be fostered by providing the public with timely, accessible and accurate information.

EHPs must also adhere to the provisions of the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act, 3 of 2000 to give effect to the right to administrative action that is lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair and to the right to administrative action as contemplated in section 33 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act, 108 of 1996. Consequently, whenever administrative decisions and actions are taken by EHPs, it is imperative that they are fair, reasonable and justifiable. In essence, section 3 of the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act, 3 of 2000 stipulates that: in order to give effect to the right to procedurally fair administrative action, an administrator (EHP in this context) must give the person:

  • Adequate notice of the nature and purpose of the proposed administrative action
  • A reasonable opportunity to make representations
  • A clear statement of the administrative action
  • Adequate notice of any right of review or internal appeal, where applicable, and
  • Adequate notice of the right to request reasons for administrative action. Furthermore, EHPs should take cognisance of the fact that the Bill of Rights as enshrined in Chapter 2 of the Constitution is a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa and affirms democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom of religion, belief, expression, association, movement, residence, trade, occupation and profession.

Ethical conduct a mandatory requirement by HPCSA

The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) as the regulatory body of the profession makes it mandatory for EHPs to uphold, promote and maintain high standard of professional ethical conduct. In order to achieve this, it is imperative for EHPs to maintain good relationships and take the interests of the clients in the execution of their duties. Ethical conduct by EHPs inculcates respect and enhances a good public image of the profession. It is on this basis that the HPCSA requires that all EHPs to acquire Continuous Education Units (CEUs) on ethics to be above board on moral and ethical conduct.

To this end, a specific code of ethics will be developed for this profession which will provide guidance and standard of professional conduct. Everything that EHPs do, demands high observation of ethical conduct hence, a code of ethics tailor made for this cadre of profession will be developed to promote and maintain a high standard of professionalism in Public Administration.