new study  | 

Frontline grocery workers 'face five times greater risk' of Covid-19 infection

Eilish O'Regan

Grocery shop workers are likely to be at heightened risk of Covid-19 infection, with those in customer-facing roles five times more likely to test positive than their colleagues in other positions, a new study suggests.

The US study is published today in the journal Occupational an Environmental Medicine.

It said that among those testing positive, three out of four had no symptoms, suggesting these key workers could be an important reservoir of infection.

To date in Ireland, there have been 23 outbreaks of Covid-19 in retail outlets, including five in the past week.


The mandatory wearing of face masks by customers is seen as important in reducing transmission.

Until now published research focusing on essential workers has largely focused on healthcare workers.

To plug this knowledge gap, and find out how Covid-19 has affected the health and wellbeing of other key workers, the researchers studied 104 employees of one grocery store in Boston, Massachusetts.

Each employee was tested for SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19, in May this year as part of a mandatory testing policy across Boston.

But before doing so, they filled detailed questionnaires.

These explored their lifestyle; medical history; employment history; working patterns and role at the store; commuting to and from work; and the protective measures they were able to take against infection at work.

They were also asked to provide information on any symptoms and exposure to anyone with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 over the past 14 days.

Information on mental health was gleaned from two validated questionnaires for depression and anxiety: PHQ-9 and GAD-7.

One in five (21 out of 104) tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, indicating a prevalence of 20pc at that point in time.

This was significantly higher than the prevalence of the infection in the local community at the time: 0.9-1.3pc.

Three out of four of those testing positive (76pc) had no symptoms. And of those testing positive, 91pc had a customer-facing role, compared with 59pc of those testing negative.

Workers in customer-facing roles were five times more likely to test positive than their colleagues in other roles, after accounting for potentially influential factors, such as the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 where they lived.

Those in supervisory roles were six times more likely to do so. Ninety-nine employees filled in the mental health questionnaires - 24 workers reported at least mild anxiety.


Only half (46pc) said they could practise social distancing consistently at work, whereas most (76pc) of those who weren't anxious were able to do so.

Eight employees were deemed to be mildly depressed.

They were less likely to practise social distancing consistently at work and more likely to commute on public transport or shared lifts compared with those who weren't depressed.

Those able to commute on foot, by bike or in their own car were 90pc less likely to report depressive symptoms.

It was a small observational study in one store at one point in time, which relied on subjective reports, and as such, can't establish cause, caution the researchers.

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