We know people of all ages, genders and ethnicities can become infected with the coronavirus and spread COVID-19. However, the virus isn’t affecting all of those groups equally. Older adults and people with chronic health conditions and certain pre-existing conditions are at much higher risk for serious illness and death if they get COVID-19.
Health Disparities by Ethnicity and Race
As we detailed in our July issue, social and economic factors tied to long-standing discrimination are leading to a disproportionate percentage of COVID-19 infections and deaths among Black, Hispanic and Latino Americans. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 30 percent of construction workers are Hispanic (compared to 18 percent of workers in all industries) and 47 percent of construction laborers are Hispanic. The percentage of Black construction workers is 6.4 percent (compared to 13 percent of workers in all industries); 8.5 percent of construction laborers are Black.
While the CPWR study discussed in this article doesn’t factor race or ethnicity into the percentage of construction workers at higher risk, Hispanic and Black workers make up a large part of the construction industry and these workers may be particularly vulnerable.
What about risk among construction workers as a whole? We tend to think of this group of workers as tough, resilient and physically fit. Because of this, you might think their risk would be lower than other groups of workers. However, we also know construction workers smoke at higher than average rates and are more likely to develop respiratory diseases like COPD and asthma due to occupational exposure. So how do all these factors add up?
A recent data bulletin from the CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training – provides some valuable answers. That bulletin concluded that nearly 60 percent of construction workers are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to age, medical conditions and other risk factors. Let’s look at these in more detail.
An Aging Construction Workforce
The average age of the U.S. workforce continues to rise, and the construction industry is no exception. In construction, the average worker is almost 43 years old. In 2019, about 12 percent of construction workers were age 60 or older, though many of those workers were employed in construction manager or administrative positions. Among construction laborers, 7.7 percent were 60 or older.
Age is one of the primary risk factors for COVID-19 complications or serious illness. Older Americans are experiencing complications that require hospitalization at much greater rates than younger Americans. For example, in June 2020, the hospitalization rate for people age 40-49 was three times higher than for people age 18-29.
Co-Occurring Health Conditions and Risk Factors
When people with COVID-19 already have one or more other health conditions (also known as comorbidities), risk for serious complications rises dramatically. According to 2018 data, 20 percent of construction workers already have some kind respiratory disease such as COPD or asthma. Twenty-five percent had a risk condition such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease or kidney or liver disease. All of these conditions put a significant number of construction workers at greater risk for COVID-19. However, there is some positive news here – both of those percentages are actually lower than the average across all industries.
Overall, the CPWR study found that construction workers age 18-44 were more likely to have risk factors (e.g., cigarette smoking, e-cigarette use, obesity) that might lead to COVID-19 complications, while construction workers age 45 and over were more likely to have pre-existing risk conditions (e.g., heart or respiratory disease).
Comparing Construction Workers to All Workers
After taking age, medical conditions and other risk factors into account, 60 percent of construction workers are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 compared to 62 percent of workers across all industries.
Whether or not you were surprised that construction workers are actually at slightly lower risk than the average worker, this data leaves us with two clear takeaways. First, COVID-19 affects all of us, regardless of occupation. This is why it’s so important to continue working together to limit its spread both on and off the job. Second, a large percentage of U.S. adults have chronic conditions, are obese or smoke. There’s never been a better time to control existing conditions and make changes that can protect and improve your health.