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Impact of occupational exposure to COVID-19 on the physical and mental health of an essential workgroup: New York City transit workers

Robyn R. Gershon, MHS, DrPH, Alexis A. Merdjanoff, PhD, Gabriella Y. Meltzer, BA, Rachael Piltch-Loeb, MSPH, PhD, Jonathan Rosen, MS, CIH, FAIHA, Ezinne M. Nwankwo, MPH, Patty Medina, MPH, David Vlahov, PhD, RN, FAAN, Martin F. Sherman, PhD

Abstract


Background and purpose: Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, New York City (NYC) vowed to “keep the subways running” despite the lack of plans in place for protecting the health and well-being of transit workers. This study was designed to assess the impact of employment during the early phase of the pandemic on this essential frontline workforce.

Methods, settings, and study participants: A convenience sample of members (stratified by job title) of the NYC Transport Workers Union, Local 100, was recruited in August 2020 to participate in an anonymous, cross-sectional, internet-based survey.

Results: The demographics of the sample participants (N = 645) reflected union membership, ie, 82 percent male, 29 percent Black; 27 percent Hispanic, and 59 percent ≥age 50 years. At the time of the “NYC Pause” (March 22, 2020) when mandatory stay-at-home orders were issued, transit workers had limited worksite protections. Many reported a lack of such basics as face masks (43 percent), hand sanitizer (40 percent), and disposable gloves (34 percent). A high proportion (87 percent) were concerned about getting infected at work. Lack of certain protections was significantly associated with both fear of contagion at work and mental health symptoms. Nearly 24 per­cent of participants reported a history of COVID-19 infection. Self-reported infection was significantly correlated with lack of certain protections, including respiratory masks (p < 0.001), disposable gloves (p < 0.001), and hand sanitizer (p < 0.001). Infection was also significantly associated with mental health symptoms (p < 0.001). By August 2020, despite participants reporting that many worksite protections were then in place, 72 percent of workers were still fearful for their safety at work, eg, because of potential exposure due to passengers not wearing masks, and risk of verbal abuse and physical assault by passengers angered when asked to wear face masks. Workers who were fearful for their safety at work were more than six times more likely to report mental health symptoms (p < 0.001).

Conclusions: Lack of worksite protections before “NYC Pause” (March 22, 2020) was significantly associated with self-reported infection, fear, and mental health symptoms in TWU, Local 100 members. To reduce the risk of adverse impacts associated with bioevents in all essential work groups, and across all essential occupational settings, infection control preparedness, early recognition of risk, and implementation of tailored risk reduction strategies are imperative. Pandemic preparedness is fundamental to protecting the health and well-being of essential workers and crucial in controlling the spread of disease in the community. Bioevent preparedness for all essential frontline workgroups will also help reduce occupational health inequities. Workers at risk, regardless of setting, deserve and have the right to equal protections under federal and state law.


Keywords


transit workers, COVID-19 pandemic, fear, mental health, disaster planning

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5055/jem.0599

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