Back to Work? Be Careful
Updated: Sep 28, 2020
By William Johnston and Kyle McDonald
Soon, millions of Americans will be called back to work. They should think twice before returning. After many weeks of enforced idleness and no paycheck, going back to work may seem irresistible. But as an American Airlines flight attendant put it “I wouldn’t want to risk my life pouring drinks on the way to Paris.” Hundreds of U.S.-based flight attendants have tested positive for COVID-19. Along with nurses, doctors, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and prison guards, flight attendants face significant risks of contracting the virus at work. For people in these essential occupations, and possibly many others, returning to the old job may be so worrisome that they will look for another line of work. COVID-19 is not just another form of influenza. It is more contagious, and far more lethal than the flu. Most dangerously, it can be transmitted by people who show no signs of being sick. The risks of infection with this new virus are greatest for healthcare workers and first responders. But almost any occupation that involves frequent communication or direct involvement with other people can create exposure to infection. Teachers, bus drivers, hair stylists, child care workers, retail clerks, and restaurant staff all may face greater-than-average risks. Little medical research has been done on infection risks in service industry jobs. The US Department of Labor (DOL) collects detailed data on the characteristics of more than 900 different occupations, and among these job characteristics, certain factors that can accurately predict exposure to infection. The DOL tallies which jobs involve frequent “face to face discussions,” “physical proximity” with other people, or “exposure to disease and infections.” For example, 88 percent of EMTs report that their jobs involve close “physical proximity (nearly touching).” Ninety-five percent of critical care nurses say they are “exposed to disease or infections every day.” Among elementary school teachers, 86 percent say they have “face to face discussions every day.” Analysis of DOL data provides a useful guide to the risks of virus transmission in various occupations. Roles that score high for multiple types of close human contacts are more likely to lead to on-the-job virus transmission. Both employees and employers will want to carefully consider data such as these, as well as publicly available information about the incidence of infections in their workplaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees may use such information to guide decisions about returning to work, or demanding protective equipment. Employers will want to reassure their customers and employees that their workplaces are safe. Of course, safety in the workplace depends on many factors besides the degree of close contact between employees and other people. Some hospitals have layers of protection for their employees that reduce employee exposure to disease, such as mandatory protective personal equipment, stringent safety protocols, and negative pressure air circulation systems. Outside of medical settings, however, there are many workplaces that have not fully considered how they might need to protect their workers against extremely infectious pathogens like COVID-19. Airlines, transit systems, schools and day care centers, restaurants, hair salons, stores, factories and warehouses have little more protection against pathogens than the average home. Employees, customers, government regulators, and trial lawyers will, rightly, demand much more.