Low-paid and frontline workers most at risk of Covid-related death, study finds

Experts highlight ‘huge inequalities’ in the labour market and urge employers to consult staff directly about health and safety processes

Workers regularly exposed to Covid-19 through their job are more likely than those in other professions to die from the virus, analysis of official figures has suggested, with those in low-paid and lower-skilled work more at risk.

Analysis of data by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) of coronavirus-related deaths in England and Wales has found that those in ‘elementary occupations’ – which includes those in the building and construction industry and factory workers – faced some of the highest Covid-related death rates.

Those working in process plants were found to have the highest rate of death involving Covid-19, with 143.2 deaths per 100,000 males.

Individuals working in the care, hospitality and service sector – including nurses – as well as taxi and bus drivers also faced a higher covid-related death rate when compared to those in professional and technical occupations. 

Ben Humberstone, ONS head of health analysis and life events, said the analysis “shows that jobs with regular exposure to Covid-19 and those working in close proximity to others continue to have higher Covid-19 death rates when compared with the rest of the working-age population”.

But he added: “There is a complex combination of factors that influences the risk of death; from your age and your ethnicity, where you live and who you live with, to pre-existing health conditions.

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“Our findings do not prove that the rates of death involving Covid-19 are caused by differences in occupational exposure.”

The analysis also showed that men continued to have a higher death rate than women. Of the 7,961 deaths involving coronavirus analysed by the ONS, nearly two-thirds were men (5,128), with just over a third women (2,833).

Reacting to the findings, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the pandemic had exposed “huge inequalities” in the UK’s labour market. “People working in low-paid and insecure jobs have been forced to shoulder much higher risk, with too many losing their lives,” she said.

The TUC called on the government to “beef up” workplace safety guidance and said it should be a requirement for employers to formally report instances of Covid infection and deaths where they are linked to an outbreak.

The union also urged the government to clamp down on employers that break the Covid safety guidance or fail to conduct proper coronavirus risk assessments. “It beggars belief that not one employer has been prosecuted and fined for breaking Covid safety rules,” said O’Grady. 

Employers have an obligation to carry out risk assessments, said Sam Dow, senior consultant at Reality HR, adding that it was crucial these were reviewed regularly. Employers should also listen to employees and adjust their processes according to feedback, she said. 

“Nobody knows what is working and what isn’t better than those who are living it day to day. The processes, and any changes to those processes, should be communicated very clearly to reassure staff of their safety,” said Dow.

This was echoed by Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR. Employers needed to consult with their workforce about what additional steps they think should be made to ensure their safety, he said: “Those at greater risk of exposure are likely to have the better ideas.”