During the winter and early spring, several studies made headlines for their findings that certain occupational sectors were associated with high excess mortality during the pandemic. Those sectors included food service, agriculture, manufacturing and construction. The studies generated a lot of media attention and concern in the occupational safety and health community that construction sites could be leading to new COVID-19 infections and making it harder to drive down the number of new cases.
However, these results should not have been surprising, for many reasons. It is self-evident that in-person essential workers are going to be at a higher risk and have a higher mortality rate than they experienced prior to the pandemic. Public health officials didn’t have a clear prevention strategy for COVID-19 until the summer. On top of all that, there was no occupational enforcement by OSHA. Instead, workers had to rely on state and municipal health ordinances being enforced by local health departments, and even that depended on where you lived.
Construction was deemed essential work and allowed to continue relatively unabated during the pandemic. As a result, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a few studies found construction workers were more likely to catch and transmit the virus. According to some researchers, the higher vulnerability for construction workers probably stemmed from the continuation of construction work throughout the pandemic, even during stay-home orders and other community-wide mitigation measures. The nature of construction work may have exacerbated these risks, due to the need for close contact with other workers, practices by employers and demographic factors.
One study reported that construction laborers were 46 percent more likely to die in 2020 than previously expected. This excess mortality was presumed to be caused by the pandemic. As was the case with the general public, it could be argued that demographic factors were the biggest factor in the increased risk for the construction sector. For example, many construction workers are uninsured or in close contact with people who have limited access to health care. When compared to the general population, construction workers also experience more underlying health conditions linked to severe cases of COVID-19, are more likely to live in larger households and may feel pressure to work even when they don’t feel well for socioeconomic reasons.
When evaluating studies that discuss construction laborers, it’s important to remember that “construction laborer” is a catchall designation that LIUNA members fall into. When we dig deeper, we find that LIUNA members are more highly trained and skilled than a typical construction laborer. We also find that LIUNA members work on projects and for contractors that are demonstrably safer than the average across the industry. In contrast to the study above, an internal review of LIUNA Pacific Southwest health and welfare data found that there was actually a drop in all-cause mortality among LIUNA members in 2020.
We have to continue going to great lengths to ensure the health and safety of workers when they do go to work. We must ensure all workers have convenient access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Large projects could follow the model of LIUNA affiliates and hold their own vaccination clinics directly on the jobsite. And we must intensify protection in the workplace through the federal enforcement of COVID-19 prevention protocols and practices.
It also means that researchers should dig deeper into worker demographics and be clear that while excess risk may show up among construction workers, this is primarily a public health problem due to exposure from many overlapping risks.
[Walter Jones is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]