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Health

Construction Workers Are Five Times More Likely To Be Hospitalized By COVID-19, UT Researchers Find

A sign encourages construction workers in Austin to social distance.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
/
KUT
A sign encourages construction workers in Austin to social distance.

Lee esta historia en español. 

Construction workers are five times more likely to end up in the hospital because of COVID-19 than other workers, according to new research from UT Austin’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. The study highlights the importance of access to health care, paid sick leave and workplace safety protocols to slow the spread of the disease.

The research, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, looked at hospitalizations in Austin from mid-March to mid-August. Researchers say it is one of the first studies to compare construction workers’ risk to that of other professions.

Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the consortium, said there are two things driving the results.

“Part of it is increased risk of infection [among construction workers],” Meyers said. “But the other part is if they do get infected, it's a group of people that's at higher risk for having severe outcomes.”

Meyers said the increased risk of infection may come from the fact that large groups of people often work in close quarters on construction sites. Construction jobs are also less likely to provide paid sick leave.

“If you feel like you have to show up to work to put food on the table, that means that somebody who is infected and maybe even has mild symptoms, they're still going to go to work,” Meyers said. “So that increases the chance of transmission.”

The increase in transmission is made more harmful by the fact that many construction workers lack easy access to health care. That means they may put off treatment if they’re sick. They may also suffer from more underlying conditions, making them more likely to require hospitalization.

In Austin, where estimates suggest that up to 80% of the construction workforce is Hispanic, the findings may also shed light on higher rates of infection and hospitalization among the city’s Hispanic residents.

Meyers said the research does not address that relationship directly, but “this may be one of many examples of conditions that put the Latinx community at higher risk for both exposure to the virus and ending up in the hospital.”

The study also suggests more could be done to reduce the spread at construction sites.

During the early months of the pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott declared construction workers to be essential personnel statewide. After that declaration, the City of Austin asked the consortium to investigate what impact keeping those workers on the job could have on their health.

The model that researchers produced forecast that continuing construction without necessary workplace precautions against COVID-19 would result in a four to five times higher rate of infection among construction workers.

Meyers said what has since happened is “almost exactly what our model predicted would happen if we didn't take measures to reduce risk on work sites.”

She said it is hard to know how many work sites are now practicing good COVID-19 prevention protocols by doing things like mandating face masks and offering paid sick leave. But those things would help to reduce the spread of the disease.

“These are things that we think probably apply to all sorts of low-paying industries with high-contact workplaces, where people feel compelled to go to work and may be forced into working situations where precautions aren't being taken,” Meyers said.

Got a tip? Email Mose Buchele at mbuchele@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele

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