6 American jobs most at risk of coronavirus exposure

Medical professionals like nurses would be on the front lines of a coronavirus outbreak. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, was officially labelled a pandemic by the WHO on Wednesday, after spreading to over 100 countries and infecting over 121,000 people around the world.

The virus has reached the United States, with over 1,000 cases confirmed and 31 deaths so far. The ongoing spread of the virus has triggered fears of an economic downturn, with US stocks tumbling more than 15% over the last several weeks.

We took a look at what occupations in the US could be most affected by a broader coronavirus spread, based on how much risk they have of being exposed to illnesses like the coronavirus.

The Labour Department’s O*NET database includes ratings for hundreds of occupations for dozens of work characteristics, activities, and skills. We took a look at various factors that could make a particular occupation more susceptible to a breakout of a highly infectious illness: Risk of exposure to diseases and infections, physical proximity to other people, direct contact with the public, and freedom to make decisions like being able to stay home if they or their family members are ill.

Medical professionals and first responders are likely to be on the front lines in any major disease outbreak. But in addition to those groups, service and transportation workers could also be at risk of contracting or spreading an epidemic virus.

Medical professionals


Medical professionals like acute care nurses, family and general practitioners, respiratory therapists, and several other specialisations dominate the top of O*NET’s list of jobs with frequent exposure to disease and infections. Medical professionals also tend to work in very close proximity to other people, increasing exposure risk.

People who work in hospitals or other medical settings would likely face a lot of exposure to the coronavirus in the event of a wider outbreak. According to The Los Angeles Times, over 3,000 healthcare workers in China have been infected with the novel virus, and it’s possible a similar spread could happen in the US.

First responders


Firefighters, emergency medical technicians, ambulance drivers, and police officers are likely to be on the front lines of an outbreak.

Like medical professionals, first responders tend to have a high risk of exposure to disease and infections, according to O*NET. Police officers, firefighters, and EMTs are also high on O*NET’s list of jobs that involve working directly with the public, again reinforcing the idea that they interact directly with lots of people every day.

Service workers


The people who make and serve food, deliver goods, and keep retail stores open could face serious impacts from a coronavirus outbreak.

Couriers and messengers appear relatively high on O*NET’s list of occupations that face exposure to disease and infections.

Barbers, fast food workers, physical therapists, athletic trainers, and manicurists all work in close physical proximity to their customers and colleagues.

Retail salespersons, concierges, restaurant servers, and cashiers all work directly with the public, putting them into potential exposure with those infected with the coronavirus.

Service workers and small businesses in Asian countries that have already been hit hard by the new illness have already seen this kind of economic pain.

Jobs without a lot of flexibility


Several big global companies are taking precautions against the new coronavirus, including encouraging their employees to work from home to mitigate any spread of the illness.

But not all jobs have that degree of flexibility.

Marissa Baker, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences department, told Business Insider that workers who may not have options to work from home, or who are paid hourly, will have to face tough decisions. “Do I stay home if I feel ill, or go into work so I can have a paycheck? What do I do if my child’s school is closed, and I can’t afford to stay off work?” she said.

Baker also noted that many jobs lack extensive paid sick leave, forcing tough decisions for workers deciding whether or not they should go to the hospital if they’re feeling ill.

In a 2018 paper estimating disease and injury risks for the workforce of the Pacific Northwest, Baker and her colleagues included a measure of how much freedom workers have to make decisions as a proxy for the above considerations.

Many of the service sector jobs previously mentioned, like restaurant servers and fast food workers, as well as several other blue-collar occupations like non-aeroplane transportation attendants and textile workers, show up very low on O*NET’s ranking of decision-making.

While it’s not a perfect measure of workplace flexibility, workers in these types of occupations may be facing the types of risks that Baker noted, and might not have the resources or support from their employers needed in the face of an epidemic.

Airline personnel


Aeroplanes are enclosed spaces with tightly packed people, and thus represent a workplace that could contribute to the spread of something like the coronavirus. The airline industry has begun to brace for a slowdown in the event of a more widespread outbreak.

Flight attendants and airline pilots work in very close physical proximity to other people, according to O*NET. Flight attendants also appear pretty high up on the list of jobs with a risk of exposure to diseases and infections.

Actors, dancers, and other performers


According to O*NET, choreographers, dancers, actors, and singers all tend to work in close proximity to their colleagues. That sets up conditions where a highly infectious illness like the coronavirus could quickly spread through a workplace.

Occupations like these also involve lots of contact with the broader public, again increasing the risk of exposure.