A recently published study on COVID-19 deaths by occupation in Massachusetts from March 1 to July 31, 2020, is one of the first to demonstrate that certain jobs in the state are at higher risk of death due to COVID-19.
Conceived and conducted by MCPHS University Public Health Instructor Devan Hawkins, the study examined death certificate data from a total of 555 individuals aged 16–64 who died of COVID-19 and certificate listed occupation. Eleven occupational groups had mortality rates higher than the average worker. Those occupations in order of risk include healthcare support; transportation and material moving; food preparation and serving; building and grounds cleaning and maintenance; production; construction and extraction; installation, maintenance, and repair; protective service; personal care and service; arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media; and community and social service. The study also confirmed well-documented racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 deaths. Hispanic and Black workers had mortality rates more than four times white workers. The study found this true even within the same occupation group. For instance, Hispanic food preparation and serving workers had a mortality rate eight times that of white workers in the same occupation.
Many of the occupations with elevated death rates are jobs that cannot be done from home and therefore have an elevated risk of exposure. However, the study suggests that other factors may also be contributing to higher death rates like lack of access to healthcare. Seven of the eleven occupations with higher COVID-19 death rates have a higher percentage of workers without health insurance. Workers in high-risk jobs may also be more likely to have underlying comorbidities that increase the risk of dying. As other studies have noted, male workers had almost twice the mortality rate as female workers, with the difference being particularly devastating for Hispanic, Black, and workers of other races and ethnicities.
The study further demonstrates the need for the comprehensive workplace COVID protections that the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) has been advocating for since the start of the pandemic, especially for low-wage workers, immigrant workers, and workers of color. While the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) received thousands of COVID-19 related complaints during the study period, the agency failed to issue and enforce strong workplace health and safety protections. In Massachusetts, decisions about how to reopen the state economy were made without the input of occupational health and safety experts on how to protect workers from exposure to this deadly virus. In May, MassCOSH condemned Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s CEO-heavy 17-member reopening advisory board for not having a single member representing workers or even one expert in occupational health. As a result, the workplace health and safety regulations created by the board failed to protect workers, and enforcement was punted to local boards of health who were under-trained and under-resourced to effectively handle the emergency.
To better protect workers in dangerous occupations, increased resources are needed for health and safety trainings that are proven to save lives. Elected officials must create and pass policies that assure that ensure workers can take time off with pay to quarantine or when they are sick to prevent workplace spread. The study clearly demonstrates the need for occupational presumption legislation that would ensure workers who work outside the home have access to no-cost medical care and workers’ compensation benefits when they become sick, and benefits for their families in the tragic event they die from workplace exposure to COVID-19. MassCOSH is also demanding that workers in the 11 occupations listed in the study be given priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine to protect themselves, their coworkers, and families from the deadly virus.
“We can no longer ignore the systematic inequalities that have contributed to such painful and preventable loss of life,” said MassCOSH executive director Jodi Sugerman-Brozan. “We owe it to the workers we lost and those still putting their health every time they report to work by renewing our promise as a society that earning a living will not require you to risk your life no matter who you are.”