Last reviewed 23 February 2021

A recent ONS report identifies job categories and workers most at risk during 2020. Most of it is as expected, although there are a few exceptions. Jon Herbert reports.

Data gathered in England and Wales by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) between 9 March and 28 December 2020 has identified employee groups with the highest fatality rates from Covid-19.

In Coronavirus (Covid-19) Related Deaths by Occupation, England and Wales, the ONS took information from death certificates and the Annual Population Survey (APS) for workers aged from 20–64 to analysis fatalities in nine major occupational groups defined using the Standard Occupational Classification 2010 (SOC 2010).

It highlighted groups most at risk, but also considered some of the 25 sub-major groups where fatalities linked to Covid-19 have been most severe. Sub-major groups are subdivided into 90 minor groups, plus 350 individual occupations, such as painters and decorators.

Figures are provisional and could be updated. They have been adjusted for age but not factors such as ethnic group, location or deprivation. However, they show that male fatality rates were higher in all occupations examined.

Figures in context

The ONS concludes that although early evidence suggests occupations most at risk — and in some instances not at risk — this should be taken as a helpful indicator and not absolute proof of linkage.

To clarify the position, it includes the following quotation from Ben Humberstone, Head of Health Analysis and Life Events:

“Today's analysis shows that jobs with regular exposure to Covid-19 and those working in close proximity to others, continue to have higher Covid-19 death rates when compared with the rest of the working ago population. Men continue to have higher rates of death than women, making up nearly two thirds of these deaths.”

However, he adds the rider that:

“As the pandemic has progressed, we have learned more about the disease and the communities it impacts most. There are complex combinations of factors that influence the risk of death: from your age and your ethnicity, where you live and who you live with, to pre-existing health conditions. Our findings do not prove that the rates of death involving Covid-19 are caused by differences in occupational exposure.”

Letting the statistics talk

The study found that, in 2020, the following Covid-19 figures applied.

  • Of 7961 deaths, 64.4% were men. With age-standardised mortality, the male death rate was 31.4 per 100,000 [5128] compared to female rates of 16.8 per 100,000 [2833].

  • Men with elementary, or caring, leisure and other service occupations had the highest male fatalities — 66.3 per 100,000 males [699] in elementary occupations and 64.1 per 100,000 males [258] in caring, leisure and other service occupations.

  • Women working as process, plant and machinery operatives, plus caring, leisure and other service occupations, had the highest female fatalities — 33.7 per 100,000 females [57] in process, plant and machinery, and 27.3 per 100,000 females [460] in caring, leisure and other service occupations.

  • Of workers in social occupations, men with 79.0 deaths per 100,000 males [150] and women with 35.9 per 100,000 females [319] both had statistically significantly higher mortality rates from Covid-19 than the equivalent working population.

  • Almost three quarters of deaths (347 out of 469) in social care occupations were care workers and home carers (109.9 deaths per 100,000 males [107] and 47.1 per 100,000 females [240]).

  • Men in healthcare occupations had a statistically higher death rate (44.9 per 100,000 [190]) compared to men in the general working population of the same age; for women (17.3 per 100,000 [224]) the rate was statistically similar to the general population.

  • Nurses had statistically significantly higher fatality rates; for men this was 79.1 per 100,000 [47] and for women 24.5 per 100,000 [110]. Nursing auxiliaries and assistants also had elevated death rates.

  • For teaching and educational professionals, overall fatality rates were not statistically significantly higher than other professional occupations. However, rates were higher for males in secondary education.

Men and deaths involving Covid-19 by occupation

Out of the nine major occupational groups considered, the study and analysis looked in detail at the six that showed statistically significantly higher death rates. Apart from the elementary and caring, leisure and other services occupations referred to in the summary above, the other four were:

  • process plant and machine operatives where the rate was 52.8 per 100,000 [827 deaths])

  • skilled trades occupations (40.4 per 100,000 [848])

  • sales and customer service occupations (40.3 per 100,000 [156])

  • administration and secretarial occupations (39.0 per 100,000 [186]).

Men working in process plants suffered the highest fatality rate (143.2 per 100,000 [120]). In this sort of job, workers:

  • clean metal goods, machinery and premises

  • operate printing machines and reprographic equipment

  • wrap, fill, label and seal containers

  • carry out other manual tasks.

Presumably the risk here is lack of social distancing.

Men involved with security operations were the next worst affected (93.4 per 100,000 [153]) and specifically security guards (100.7 per 100,000 males [140]).

The third worst affected group for men was caring, leisure and other service occupations (258 deaths) with a majority in caring personal services (91.0 per 100,000 males [184]).

The next 10 most affected groups were:

  • restaurant and catering managers and proprietors (119.3 per 100,000 [26])

  • metal working and machine operative (106.1 per 100,000 [40])

  • food, drink and tobacco process (103.7 per 100,000 [52])

  • chefs (103.1 per 100,000 [82])

  • taxi and cab drivers (101.4 per 100,00 [209])

  • nursing auxiliaries and assistants (87.2 per 100,000 [45])

  • construction (82.1 per 100,000 [70])

  • nurses (79.1 per 100,000 [47])

  • local government administration (72.1 per 100,000 [23])

  • bus and coach drivers (70.3 per 100,000 [83]).

Women and deaths involving Covid-19 by occupation

Three of the nine major occupational groups considered had statistically significantly higher death rates than the comparable working population. From the highest to the lowest, they were:

  • process plant and machine operatives (33.7 per 100,000 [57)

  • care, leisure and other service occupations (27.3 per 100,000 [460])

  • elementary occupations (21.1 per 100,000 [227]).

Women had a statistically significantly lower death rate when working as managers, directors and senior officials and in professional, associate professional and technical occupations, plus administrative and secretarial posts. Other groups were not significantly different.

However, among process, plant and machine workers, the group with the highest fatality rate was assemblers and routine operatives, including sewing machinists (39.2 per 100,000 [21]).

In the caring and leisure group, most deaths were among caring and personal service staff (38.3 per 100,000 [326]). Caring personal services, care workers and home carers had a rate of 47.1 per 100,000 [240].

The next six most affected groups were:

  • Social workers (32.4 per 100,000 [25])

  • national government administration (27.9 per 100,000 [26])

  • sales and retail assistants (26.9 per 100,000 [111])

  • managers/directors in retail/wholesale (26.7 per 100,000 [24])

  • nursing auxiliaries and assistants (25.3 per 100,000 [54])

  • nurses (24.5 per 100,000 [110]).

Teaching and educational professionals

For both sexes, overall fatality rates were statistically significantly lower than the general working population (18.4 per 100,000 [66] for men and 9.8 per 100,000 [73] for women, compared to 31.4 and 16.8 per 100,000 for males and females in the wider population). However, the fatality rate for men in secondary education was 39.2 per 100,000 males [29].


Although the figures are provisional and subject to provisos that ethnicity, location, wealth, etc have not been taken into account, they show that nearly two thirds of fatalities were among men. It is something to be aware of, especially when risk assessing your vulnerable workers.