fb-pixel Skip to main content

In tally of 2020 worker fatalities, a gaping hole: COVID deaths

An iron worker in Boston wore a face covering on the job last fall.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A flurry of information detailing occupation-related deaths and illnesses was released this week, centered around Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28. But in the midst of a pandemic that has put those who come into contact with the public at risk — and taken the lives of more than 570,000 Americans — there’s a gaping hole in the data: no deaths from COVID-19 are included, because no government agency tracks workplace exposure to the virus.

Officially, 45 workers in Massachusetts lost their lives on the job last year, the majority as a result of injuries, according to a report released Wednesday by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. (The number is lower than the 72 in 2019 because so many workplaces were closed last year, the report states.)


Unofficially, however, hundreds, if not thousands, more likely died after contracting COVID at work.

Between March 2020 and March 2021, 11,243 people filed workers’ compensation claims for missing five or more days of work due to what they believed to be work-related COVID infections, according to the report. Many more likely got sick but didn’t file a claim.

Workers in 10 occupations had higher COVID mortality rates than the average working population, including those in health care support, transportation and material moving, food prep and serving, and building cleaning and maintenance. The occupations with the highest death rates include jobs more likely to be performed outside the home than average, are less likely to allow for social distancing, and give workers less access to paid sick leave.

Adults who couldn’t work at home were more than twice as likely to report testing positive for the coronavirus than those who could, according to a new survey of more than 35,000 Massachusetts residents by the state Department of Public Health.


While the precise number of COVID deaths tied to work isn’t clear, the virus has taken a definite toll on those working on the front lines during the crisis.

“There’s no doubt it’s in the thousands,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of MassCOSH.

More than 651,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Massachusetts, and 17,423 have died.

Of the 45 worker deaths accounted for last year, seven were in the agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting industry, including four fishermen who were killed when their boat sank about 20 miles northeast of Provincetown. Six deaths were in construction. Transportation accidents were the leading cause, contributing to nearly half of all worker fatalities.

Between January and March of 2021, nine workers lost their lives, including two men at a construction site in downtown Boston who were hit by a truck and knocked into a deep hole.

In September, MassCOSH reported that at least 59 workers had died after potentially being exposed to COVID on the job, most of them in health care, according to data gathered from the state, unions, nursing homes, federal investigations, news stories, and obituaries. The figure was likely a “gross undercount,” the agency said, and the effort has not been updated.

A number of other studies also point to a high number of COVID infections transmitted at work.

The nonprofit Institute for Work & Health in Toronto estimates that 20 percent of COVID infections among working-age adults in Ontario are attributed to workplace exposure, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. If that estimate is applied to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, workplace transmission would account for at least 3.5 million positive cases among the working-age population in the United States.


For workers of color, many of whom are employed in front-line jobs, the pandemic has been especially dire. Latino and Black workers in Massachusetts had age-adjusted mortality rates more than four times higher than that of white workers in the first five months of the pandemic, according to a report published in February in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Latino workers in food prep and serving jobs died of COVID-19 at a rate eight times higher than that of white workers in the same occupations, and the mortality rate of Black health care support workers was three times higher than that of their white counterparts.

The new MassCOSH report slams the state’s inaction on job safety, noting that workers largely had to fend for themselves: “Governor Baker focused more on the role of individual behavior in spreading the virus while neglecting workplace protections that could have saved lives and reduced spread.”

Baker’s reopening advisory board didn’t seek to protect workers from airborne particles and provided few additional resources to local public health departments or to the state agency tasked with enforcement, the report states. In addition, employers were allowed to “self-certify” their compliance with minimal safety measures in place.


Massachusetts didn’t start requiring people’s occupations to be listed on COVID tests until July, and still, job data is missing from 80 to 90 percent of the test results posted online by the state, making it difficult to pinpoint workplace exposure, Sugerman-Brozan said.

The Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards noted that the Baker administration implemented COVID-19 safety standards for businesses a year ago, with mandatory masking, distancing, and hygiene requirements, and has added several channels for reporting workplace violations, including a hot line and online form, and provided training for local health departments.

Meanwhile, workers in Massachusetts made 956 complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2020, but only 23 of them led to workplace inspections, according to the MassCOSH report. The rest were dealt with by contacting employers and letting them address the issues themselves.

Nationwide, OSHA received 15 percent more worker complaints between February and October of 2020 compared to the same time period the year before, and conducted 50percent fewer inspections, according to an audit by the US Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General, which noted that most inspections were done remotely during the pandemic, potentially allowing hazards to go unidentified.

“Relying on voluntary employer compliance, instead of mandatory COVID-19 safety regulations has been a catastrophic failure for American workers,” the National COSH report states.

Worker advocates have been calling for OSHA to issue emergency workplace safety standards to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which the Trump administration failed to act on, and earlier this week OSHA finally submitted rules for final review. The standards are expected to require employers to supply masks for employees and create a formal plan to minimize exposure on the job, among other precautions.


MassCOSH is supporting a bill that would make all workers who test positive for COVID-19 automatically eligible for workers’ compensation insurance. The agency is also advocating for more resources to be devoted to enforcing worker safety, emergency paid sick time for those who contract the virus, hazard pay for front-line workers, and a requirement that contractors who fail to protect workers not be allowed to do business with the state.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.