Millions of Americans Risk Infection at Work, Estimate Scientists Who Say Employers Must Protect Staff From COVID-19

Tens of millions of employees in the across the country are thought to be exposed to disease at work at least once a week, according to the authors of a study who stress employers must devise plans to protect their staff against COVID-19.

The authors of the research, published in the journal PLOS One, estimate 14.4 million people, or 10 percent, of American workers are exposed to disease or infection in the workplace at least once a week, and 26.7 million, or 18 percent, at least once a month.

Healthcare workers bear the brunt of exposure, the team said. But the team highlighted that those in public-facing workers such as police and correctional officers, firefighters, couriers, patient service representatives, teachers, community health and social workers, counsellors, and "even construction and extraction occupations" such as plumbers, septic tank installers, elevator repair workers are also at risk.

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Food bank employees prepare essentials for healthcare workers on April 14, 2020 in New York City. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Food Bank For New York City
OccupationFrequency of exposure to disease and infection according to PLOS One study.
Healthcare Occupations (including healthcare practitioner, technical occupations, healthcare support occupations)More than 90% exposed more than once a month, and more than 75% of workers exposed more than once a week
Protective Service Occupations (including police officers, firefighters, transportation security screeners).52% exposed more than once a month
Personal Care and Service Occupations (including childcare workers, nannies, personal care aides).52% exposed more than once a month
Community and Social Services Occupations (including probation officers, community health workers, and social and human health assistants).32.4% exposed more than once a month

The team looked at two sources for their study, including Bureau of Labor Statistics national employment data from May 2018. The second chunk came from what is known as the O*NET database, featuring survey results on the characteristics of different occupations. According to the authors, almost 160,000 employees from 125,000 workplaces completed O*NET questionnaires between 2001 and 2011. The team assessed answers to the question: "How often does your current job require you be exposed to diseases or infections?"

The study was limited because the team looked used existing data sources, the researchers acknowledged. In addition, the data didn't reveal how often respondents came in contact with the public and or bodily fluids, or detail hand washing protocols at work, cleaning and hygiene practices, or levels of access to personal protective equipment which all affect their chances of being infected.

But the researcher said "we believe this analysis is valuable for informing risk assessments and prompting protective actions that occupational sectors and regulatory agencies can take during infectious disease outbreaks, such as COVID-19."

The researchers concluded: "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."

As shown in the graph below by Statista, the U.S. has the most known cases of COVID-19. According to Johns Hopkins University, more than 3.2 million people have been diagnosed with the disease caused by the coronavirus, almost 1 million have recovered, and over 227,000 have died.

This infographic shows the countries with the most COVID-19 cases. Statista

Co-author Marissa Baker, an assistant professor in the University of Washington School of Public Health, said in a statement: "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."
Baked said: "The public health implications from our study 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."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advice on Using Face Coverings to Slow Spread of COVID-19

  • CDC recommends wearing a cloth face covering in public where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
  • A simple cloth face covering can help slow the spread of the virus by those infected and by those who do not exhibit symptoms.
  • Cloth face coverings can be fashioned from household items. Guides are offered by the CDC. (
  • Cloth face coverings should be washed regularly. A washing machine will suffice.
  • Practice safe removal of face coverings by not touching eyes, nose, and mouth, and wash hands immediately after removing the covering.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.