A new study published online in JAMA Network Open finds that construction workers may be at high risk of Covid-19 infection. Conducted by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and the Santa Fe Institute, the study asked whether construction work is associated with increased community transmission of Covid-19 as well as disproportionate fatalities in US construction workers. It examined hospitalization data in central Texas, finding that “construction workers had a nearly 5-fold increased risk of hospitalization in central Texas compared with other occupational categories.” Its authors conclude that this does not mean construction work must be halted, but that workplaces should take seriously the necessary safety measures and paid sick leave policies to protect vulnerable essential workers.
As the study notes in its introduction, early in the pandemic policymakers across the US differed in their views on the essentiality of construction work: “Boston, New York, and San Francisco severely restricted allowable projects. Other cities and states deemed commercial and home construction essential. Most of the nation’s 7.3 million construction workers remained employed throughout April and May of 2020, representing 4.5% of the labor workforce, ranging from 1.8% in the District of Columbia to 10.5% in Wyoming.” The authors note that because construction workers operate in close physical proximity to each other, construction sites have a higher than average risk of Covid-19 transmission. And because “Latinx populations are overly represented among construction and essential industries,” they have higher rates of exposure too, which are “compounded by prevalent high-risk comorbidities and lack of access to health care.” According to the authors, the combination of these risks is probably partly responsible for the higher rates of COVID-19 infection and fatality in Latinx communities.
The study itself focused on construction sites in Texas, where it notes that in Austin, a March 24 stay-at-home order shuttering construction projects—other than those involving critical infrastructure—was overruled a week afterward by the state’s governor, who declared “all construction work permissible statewide.” The study’s authors performed a “risk assessment” at the time which found the continuation of construction projects “might undermine the efficacy of the stay-home order, accelerating spread and amplifying risk in a workforce with overlapping risks.” They note that their predictions were bolstered by higher-than-average hospitalization rates inside the city’s construction workforce from March 13th to August 20th.
As for the study’s methodology, it used a “data driven model of COVID-19 transmission… to estimate the association between construction work” and the virus’s reproduction number, applying it to the city of Austin’s construction worker population, which it estimates at about 50,000. It used anonymized hospitalization data provided by the city, tracking COVID-19 patients in various “states” of the disease, including: “susceptible, exposed, presymptomatic, asymptomatic, symptomatic, hospitalized, and recovered.”
What the study ultimately concluded was that construction laborers are five times more likely people with other professions to experience hospitalizations as a result of COVID-19 infection. According to the authors, the risk of infection is amplified by close contact between workers, exposure to hazardous materials on construction worksites, as well as other demographic factors: “Approximately 24% of all construction workers and nearly 48% of Latinx construction workers do not have health insurance and thus lack access to preventative care, have disproportionate comorbidities, and are less likely to seek timely and safe treatment for COVID-19 infections,” the authors wrote. They also suggest that viral transmission may be increased by symptomatic patients “continuing to work out of economic desperation and above-average sized households,” a trend that’s also observable in other industries with low pay and “high-contact workplaces,” like meatpacking warehouses.
In a statement about the study’s findings, Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of UT-Austin’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, said: “It doesn’t necessarily mean we need to stop construction work… “It means we need to go to great lengths to ensure the health and safety of workers when they do go to work.”
The study is available via JAMA Network Open.