Millions of US workers at risk of infections on the job

April 29, 2020

A University of Washington researcher calculates that 14.4 million workers face exposure to infection once a week and 26.7 million at least once a month in the workplace, pointing to an important population needing protection as the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, continues to break out across the U.S.

Marissa Baker, an assistant professor in the UW School of Public Health, based her calculations on research she published in 2018 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. In that paper, Baker and co-authors calculated that about 8% of workers in Federal Region X -- comprised of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho -- work in jobs where exposure to infection or disease occurs at least once a week at work. Those risks include flu-like illnesses, MRSA and other respiratory illnesses, like COVID-19, as well as wound infections.

Using federal employment data, and the same analysis method, Baker and her co-authors determined:

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

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

The new paper on worker exposures was published on PLOS ONE on April 28.

"While healthcare occupations represent the bulk of workers exposed to infection and disease, other occupations that frequently interface with the public and provide essential services are also at increased risk of exposure. Those include police officers, firefighters, childcare workers, and personal care aides," said Baker, who is also program director of UW's Industrial Hygiene/Exposure Science program, Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences. "This underscores the importance of all types of occupations developing workplace response plans for infectious disease."

While those response plans must include how to keep workers safe from exposure at work, Baker added, they must also ensure workers don't have to show up sick, potentially spreading disease within and outside the workplace.

Some workers who are in higher paying and more secure jobs, often salaried, can work from home or afford more time away from work, but many don't have these same options, such as workers who participate in the gig economy or are independent contractors and are typically not considered employees. These workers don't benefit from employee protective policies, such as sick leave, putting them at increased risk of having to work when they or a loved one is sick, despite public health guidance.

Even if a worker does have paid sick leave, and knows how to access it, a variety of other real and perceived pressures -- such as an economy that rewards people who are working hard at all times, or pressure to perform work that no one else can perform, encourages workers to come to work sick, a phenomena researchers term "presenteeism."

"Our findings serve as an important reminder that the workplace should be a focus for public health intervention, especially during disease outbreaks such as COVID-19," Baker said, adding that researchers produced the new work to help shed light on this fact, and to respond to questions about their 2018 paper and its application to the current, nationwide outbreak. Estimating the burden of U.S. workers exposed to infection or disease is a key factor in containing risk of COVID-19 infection.

"The public health implications from our study," Baker said, "are that workplaces need to make sure that they are not only protecting their workers at work, but also coming up with contingency plans to make sure that sick workers are not coming to work, and that can be accomplished through training workers to fill in for each other, providing additional paid sick leave during this time and similar measures."
-end-
Co-authors include Trevor Peckham and Noah Seixas, UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, School of Public Health. This research was funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

University of Washington

Related Public Health Articles from Brightsurf:

COVID-19 and the decolonization of Indigenous public health
Indigenous self-determination, leadership and knowledge have helped protect Indigenous communities in Canada during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and these principles should be incorporated into public health in future, argue the authors of a commentary in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) http://www.cmaj.ca/lookup/doi/10.1503/cmaj.200852.

Public health consequences of policing homelessness
In a new study examining homelessness, researchers find that policy such a lifestyle has massive public health implications, making sleeping on the street even MORE unhealthy.

Electronic health information exchange improves public health disease reporting
Disease tracking is an important area of focus for health departments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic likely to cause long-term health problems, Yale School of Public Health finds
The coronavirus pandemic's life-altering effects are likely to result in lasting physical and mental health consequences for many people--particularly those from vulnerable populations--a new study led by the Yale School of Public Health finds.

The Lancet Public Health: US modelling study estimates impact of school closures for COVID-19 on US health-care workforce and associated mortality
US policymakers considering physical distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 face a difficult trade-off between closing schools to reduce transmission and new cases, and potential health-care worker absenteeism due to additional childcare needs that could ultimately increase mortality from COVID-19, according to new modelling research published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

The Lancet Public Health: Access to identification documents reflecting gender identity may improve trans mental health
Results from a survey of over 20,000 American trans adults suggest that having access to identification documents which reflect their identified gender helps to improve their mental health and may reduce suicidal thoughts, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

The Lancet Public Health: Study estimates mental health impact of welfare reform, Universal Credit, in Great Britain
The 2013 Universal Credit welfare reform appears to have led to an increase in the prevalence of psychological distress among unemployed recipients, according to a nationally representative study following more than 52,000 working-age individuals from England, Wales, and Scotland over nine years between 2009-2018, published as part of an issue of The Lancet Public Health journal on income and health.

BU researchers: Pornography is not a 'public health crisis'
Researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) have written an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health special February issue arguing against the claim that pornography is a public health crisis, and explaining why such a claim actually endangers the health of the public.

The Lancet Public Health: Ageism linked to poorer health in older people in England
Ageism may be linked with poorer health in older people in England, according to an observational study of over 7,500 people aged over 50 published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

Study: Public transportation use linked to better public health
Promoting robust public transportation systems may come with a bonus for public health -- lower obesity rates.

Read More: Public Health News and Public Health Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.