We describe COVID-19 among workers in US food processing, food manufacturing, and agriculture workplaces from March 1–May 31, 2020.
Among all food manufacturing and agriculture workers in 28 states reporting race and ethnicity data, 36.5% of workers are Hispanic or Latino, 52.6% are non-Hispanic White, 5.9% are non-Hispanic Black, 3.5% are non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1.5% are of other non-Hispanic race or ethnicity groups (4).
However, among workers with COVID-19 for whom race or ethnicity data were reported, 72.8% were Hispanic or Latino, 6.3% were non-Hispanic Black, and 4.1% were non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander, suggesting that Hispanic or Latino, non-Hispanic Black, and non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander workers in these workplaces might be disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
The sex, age, and symptom distribution of meat and poultry processing workers with COVID-19 were similar to that observed for food manufacturing and agriculture workers.
The racial and ethnic distribution of meat and poultry processing workers with COVID-19 differed slightly; a higher percentage of cases were reported among non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander workers.
Our study supports findings from prior reports that part of the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 among some racial and ethnic minority groups is likely related to occupational risk (8,9). These findings should be considered when implementing workplace interventions to ensure communication and training is culturally and linguistically tailored for each workforce.
Reports on mass testing in US meat and poultry processing facilities revealed widespread COVID-19 outbreaks and identified high proportions of asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections (10,11).
Although most food manufacturing and agriculture workers (83.2%) and meat and poultry processing workers (88.1%) in our study reported symptoms, not all workplaces performed mass testing; therefore, workers with asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections might have been missed.
These findings support the need for comprehensive testing strategies, coupled with contact tracing and symptom screening, for high-density critical infrastructure workplaces to aid in identifying infections and reducing transmission within the workplace (12).
Reducing workplace exposures is critical for protecting workers in US food processing, food manufacturing, and agriculture workplaces and might help reduce health disparities among disproportionately affected populations.
Adherence to workplace-specific intervention and prevention efforts, including engineered controls, such as physical distancing; administrative controls, such as proper sanitation, cleaning, and disinfection; and providing personal protective equipment likely would protect both workers and surrounding communities (13,14).
This study has several limitations. First, only 36 states reported data; these results might not be representative of all US food processing, food manufacturing, and agriculture workers and workplaces. Second, testing strategies varied by workplace, influencing the number of cases detected and reported among workers.
Workers might have been hesitant to report illness or seek healthcare, which could have led to underestimating cases among workers. Delays in linking cases and deaths to workplace outbreaks likely also contributed to an underestimation.
Third, demographic characteristics of total worker populations in all affected workplaces were not available, limiting the ability to quantify the degree to which some racial and ethnic minority groups might be disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Fourth, preferred language, English proficiency, and migration and immigration status of workers were not captured; culturally and linguistically appropriate public health monitoring and interventions are crucial considerations for this workforce.
Finally, workers are members of their local communities; transmission of SARS-CoV-2 could have occurred both at the workplace and in the surrounding community and thus could be affected by levels of community transmission.
Comprehensive evaluations in food processing, food manufacturing, and agriculture workplaces and communities are needed to clarify and address risk factors for SARS-CoV-2 transmission among workers.
The extent of control measures and timing of implementations should be evaluated to assess the effectiveness of workplace interventions.
Several factors at the individual-, household-, community-, and occupational-level, including long-standing health and social disparities, likely contribute to disproportionate disease incidence among racial and ethnic minority workers.
Source: Waltenburg, M. A., Rose, C. E., Victoroff, T., Butterfield, M., Dillaha, J. A., Heinzerling, A., … & COVID, C. (2021). Coronavirus disease among workers in food processing, food manufacturing, and agriculture workplaces. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 27(1), 243.
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