14.4M American workers at risk of exposure to coronavirus infection on the job every week, says study

Estimating the burden of US workers exposed to infection or disease is a key factor in containing the risk of COVID-19 infection, say experts


                            14.4M American workers at risk of exposure to coronavirus infection on the job every week, says study
(Getty Images)
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An estimated 14.4 million workers face exposure to infection once a week and 26.7 million at least once a month in the workplace, say researchers in a new analysis.

The findings, which show that millions of American workers are at risk of infections on the job, serve as an important reminder that the workplace should be a focus for public health intervention, especially during disease outbreaks such as COVID-19, say experts from the University of Washington School, Seattle, who have conducted the analysis.

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The study comes at a time when the US is looking at reopening the economy. With the global spread of coronavirus, there is a compelling public health interest in quantifying who is at increased risk of contracting the disease.

Estimating the burden of US workers exposed to infection or disease is a key factor in containing the risk of COVID-19 infection, say experts.

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"Quantifying the number of workers who are frequently exposed to infection and disease in the workplace, and understanding which occupational groups they represent, can help to prompt public health risk response and management for COVID-19 in the workplace, and subsequent infectious disease outbreaks," says researchers in their findings published in PLOS ONE. 

To estimate the number of US workers frequently exposed to infection and disease in the workplace, national employment data (by Standard Occupational Classification) maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) was merged with a survey measure reporting how frequently workers in each occupation are exposed to infection or disease at work.

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This allowed the researchers to estimate the number of US workers, across all occupations, exposed to disease or infection at work more than once a month.

The research team found that 10% (14,425,070) of US workers are employed in occupations where exposure to disease or infection happens at least weekly, based on employee and employer self-report.

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The study also shows that 18.4% (26,669,810) of US workers are employed in occupations where exposure to disease or infection happens at least monthly, based on employee and employer self-report. 

Estimating the burden of US workers exposed to infection or disease is a key factor in containing the risk of COVID-19 infection, say experts (Getty Images)

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While the majority of exposed workers are employed in healthcare sectors, other occupational sectors also have high proportions of exposed workers.

These include protective service occupations, office and administrative support occupations, education occupations, and community and social services occupations. It also includes construction and extraction occupations (plumbers, septic tank installers, elevator repair). 

"Both healthcare practitioners and technical occupations, and healthcare support occupations have more than 90% of workers exposed more than once a month and more than 75% of workers exposed more than once a week."

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"Other notable major occupation groups with a high proportion of exposure are protective service occupations (52% exposed over once a month, including police officers, firefighters, transportation security screeners), and personal care and service occupations (52% exposed over once a month, including childcare workers, nannies, personal care aides)."

"In community and social services occupations, 32.4% exposed more than once a month, including probation officers, community health workers, and social and human health assistants," says the analysis.

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The research team also found that 16% of office and administrative support occupations with exposure to disease or infection more than once a month are patient representatives, couriers and messengers, and medical secretaries.

The nearly 4% of workers exposed in business and financial operation occupations are compliance specialists, which includes environmental compliance specialists and coroners, says the study. 

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Number and percent of workers exposed to infection or disease more than one time per month, and more than one time per week, by Standard Occupational Classification code (SOC). (PLOS ONE)

The findings underscore the importance of all types of occupations developing workplace response plans for infectious disease, says the team. "The large number of persons employed in occupations with frequent exposure to infection and disease underscores the importance of all workplaces developing risk response plans for COVID-19."

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"Given the proportion of the US workforce exposed to disease or infection at work, this analysis also serves as an important reminder that the workplace is a key locus for public health interventions, which could protect both workers and the communities they serve," say researchers.

According to the experts, the results have important public health implications. While response plans must include how to keep workers safe from exposure at work, workplaces must also create contingency plans to ensure that workers do not show up sick, potentially spreading disease within and outside the workplace.

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This can be accomplished through training workers to fill in for one another, providing additional paid sick leave during this time and similar measures, recommend experts. 

As of May 4, over 67,680 have died in the coronavirus pandemic in the US, and more than 1,158,040 COVID-19 cases have been reported, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. 

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