Introduction: With the global spread of COVID-19, there is a compelling public health interest in quantifying who is at increased risk of contracting disease. Occupational characteristics, such as interfacing with the public and being in close quarters with other workers, not only put workers at high risk for disease, but also make them a nexus of disease transmission to the community. This can further be exacerbated through presenteeism, the term used to describe the act of coming to work despite being symptomatic for disease. 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.
Methods: To estimate the number of United States 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 BLS O*NET survey measure reporting how frequently workers in each occupation are exposed to infection or disease at work. This allowed us to estimate the number of United States workers, across all occupations, exposed to disease or infection at work more than once a month.
Results: Based on our analyses, approximately 10% (14.4 M) of United States workers are employed in occupations where exposure to disease or infection occurs at least once per week. Approximately 18.4% (26.7 M) of all United States workers are employed in occupations where exposure to disease or infection occurs at least once per month. 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 (e.g. police officers, correctional officers, firefighters), office and administrative support occupations (e.g. couriers and messengers, patient service representatives), education occupations (e.g. preschool and daycare teachers), community and social services occupations (community health workers, social workers, counselors), and even construction and extraction occupations (e.g. plumbers, septic tank installers, elevator repair).
Conclusions: The large number of persons employed in occupations with frequent exposure to infection and disease underscore the importance of all workplaces developing risk response plans for COVID-19. Given the proportion of the United States 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.