Who’s at risk at work? How the pandemic exposed job hazards


Ellie Dries

Waitress serving drinks in local cafe

Witnessing how the pandemic exposed restaurant servers and grocery cashiers to unexpected hazards made me think more about workplace safety and the way our society values necessary, potentially hazardous work.

Do people with all levels of education have access to jobs with varying degrees of hazard, or are the least-hazardous jobs reserved for workers with college degrees? Can workers seamlessly transition from high-hazard jobs to lower-hazard jobs when they need or want to?

The Federal Reserve has a dual mandate to promote price stability and maximum employment. In support of the latter, we consider a range of factors, from the overall unemployment rate to how gender, race, and education level influence labor market outcomes such as employment, wages, and job stability.

Newly risky roles

Another important labor market outcome is whether occupations properly compensate workers for the hazards and health risks related to that work.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers had to factor safety—their own and that of their family members—into their decisions to work and for what wages. This was a new consideration for many workers whose jobs weren’t previously considered hazardous or unsafe. The new calculus of risk contributed to many workers changing or leaving jobs both during and after the pandemic.

These workforce shifts led labor market researchers to consider workplace hazard and context—or the environment in which a worker performs their job—among labor market outcomes. Doing so can lend insight into important trends in the economy and how we identify uneven outcomes in the labor market.

By looking at data specific to workplace safety, occupations, and educational attainment, researchers can explore an important aspect of job quality and equity in the labor market. As always, data play a key role.

Quantifying workplace health risks

The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) is one organization that provides data to assess workplace health risks. O*NET surveys workers and experts in each occupation to provide information on occupation contexts and characteristics.

According to O*NET, jobs that carry some of the highest hazards include roles in the energy and chemical fields. Explosives workers, petroleum pump system operators, wind turbine service technicians, electrical power-line installers, and chemical plant operators have the highest exposure to hazardous conditions. Elevator technicians and installers, embalmers, and automotive technicians are also jobs with high-hazard scores.

Which is likely not surprising, given the physical danger associated with positions like these. But jobs can carry less obvious hazards, too. O*NET data reveal fascinating insights into the nature of different occupations. Even within the same occupation, wages, exposure to hazards, and working conditions can differ significantly.

Delving deeper into these and other disparities raises an intriguing question: Do all workers face equal risks in their respective fields, or are some workers unfairly subjected to greater workplace hazards and insufficiently compensated for those hazards?

Exploring the hazards of my past jobs

O*NET’s work context scores serve as a rough proxy for exposure to specific attributes of a work environment—contact with others, for instance, or frequency of conflict situations. A score of 1 means a worker never experiences a specific work context. A score of 5 indicates a worker experiences that work context every day.

O*NET Work Context Scores
2Once a year or more but not every month
3Once a month or more but not every week
4Once a week or more but not every day
5Every day
Source: O*NET 2022

I was curious about different context scores for the jobs that I’ve had. My prior jobs include a barista, a restaurant host, a math tutor, and a research analyst. All of my jobs have involved relatively low exposure to hazards. My time as a restaurant host involved the highest exposure. This also happened to be my lowest-paying position.

4.59Contact with Others
2.76Deal with Unpleasant or Angry People
1.57Exposed to Disease or Infections
1Exposed to Hazardous Conditions
2.82Frequency of Conflict Situations
Source: O*NET 2022
3.35Contact with Others
2.04Deal with Unpleasant or Angry People
1.22Exposed to Disease or Infections
1Exposed to Hazardous Conditions
2.09Frequency of Conflict Situations
Source: O*NET 2022
__________Fast Food and
Counter Workers
4.73Contact with Others
3.4Deal with Unpleasant or Angry People
1.17Exposed to Disease or Infections
1.03Exposed to Hazardous Conditions
2.62Frequency of Conflict Situations
Source: O*NET 2022
__________Hosts and Hostesses,
Restaurant, Lounge, and Coffee Shop
4.78Contact with Others
3.98Deal with Unpleasant or Angry People
1.65Exposed to Disease or Infections
1.18Exposed to Hazardous Conditions
3.73Frequency of Conflict Situations
Source: O*NET 2022
Hazard scores by educational attainment and gender

Looking at the work context data more broadly, we can determine that workers without a high school diploma have the highest scores for exposure to hazardous conditions. Those with a college degree or graduate degree have the lowest. We also find that male workers tend to have occupations with higher scores for exposure to hazardous conditions and contaminants on average. Meanwhile, female workers tend to have occupations with higher scores for dealing with unpleasant or angry people or contact with others on average.

_______Male workers
4.39Contact with Others
3.00Deal with Unpleasant or Angry People
1.58Exposed to Disease or Infections
2.05Exposed to Hazardous Conditions
3.02Frequency of Conflict Situations
Sources: O*NET 2022; Current Population Survey 1990 to 2023, and Author’s Calculations
_______ Female workers
4.59Contact with Others
3.20Deal with Unpleasant or Angry People
2.01Exposed to Disease or Infections
1.52Exposed to Hazardous Conditions
3.11Frequency of Conflict Situations
Sources: O*NET 2022; Current Population Survey 1990 to 2023, and Author’s Calculations
Ability to work from home and workplace hazards

Additionally, jobs that can only be done in person have more frequent exposure to hazards. In-person jobs without a work-from-home option were greatly impacted by shutdowns, COVID-19 infections, child care shortages, and other factors.

________In-person jobs (average)
2.44Exposed to Hazardous Conditions
1.61Deal with Physically Aggressive People
2.99Deal with Unpleasant or Angry People
3.32Exposed to Contaminants
2.03Exposed to Disease or Infections
1.38Exposed to Radiation
2.91Frequency of Conflict Situations
3.63Responsible for Others’ Health and Safety
Sources: O*NET 2022 and Dingel & Neiman (2020)
__________ Remote-friendly jobs (average)
1.33Exposed to Hazardous Conditions
1.42Deal with Physically Aggressive People
2.78Deal with Unpleasant or Angry People
1.79Exposed to Contaminants
1.47Exposed to Disease or Infections
1.08Exposed to Radiation
2.93Frequency of Conflict Situations
2.62Responsible for Others’ Health and Safety
Sources: O*NET 2022 and Dingel & Neiman (2020)
The connection between job security and hazards

I was also curious about the relationship between job security and hazardous occupations during the pandemic. Did individuals working in dangerous occupations experience less job security than those in safer occupations?

I categorize the occupations into two groups: the “Low-hazard occupation” group includes individuals exposed to hazards less frequently (never or once a year). In contrast, the “High-hazard occupation” group includes those exposed to hazards once a month or more.

The findings reveal that workers in occupations with higher hazardous conditions experienced a substantial increase in the unemployment rate during the pandemic. Their unemployment rate remains persistently higher today.


When we evaluate our current and past jobs, we naturally weigh how the work impacted our mental health, physical health, and free time relative to what we were paid and whether the role provided insurance, time off, or both. A recent report on worker experiences in the pandemic highlights the importance to workers of flexibility, safety, and respect in our jobs.

For me, my lowest-paying jobs were those in which I experienced the most exposure to angry people, long hours on my feet, slipping risks, and no benefits. Occupations with high face-to-face contact and no ability to work from home tend to have higher hazard scores on average, pandemic aside.

The pandemic increased health risks even more for these workers. Moving forward, job hazard and health risks should be considered key components of job quality.

Data Sources

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