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COVID-19 clusters and outbreaks in occupational settings in the EU/EEA and the UK

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The aim of this document is to describe COVID-19 clusters and outbreaks in the EU/EEA and the UK linked to occupational settings, including healthcare and non-healthcare settings, and to identify possible factors contributing to transmission in these settings.

Executive summary

Outbreaks and clusters of COVID-19 in a variety of occupational settings have been reported since the start of the pandemic in the European Union, the European Economic Area (EU/EEA) and the United Kingdom (UK). Fifteen EU/EEA countries and the UK reported 1 376 clusters of COVID-19 in occupational settings which occurred between March and early July 2020.

Workers in occupations which bring them in close physical proximity to other people (co-workers, patients, customers, etc.), particularly when working in indoor settings or with shared transport or accommodation, are more exposed to and at higher risk of COVID-19 in the absence of mitigation measures.

The majority of occupational COVID-19 clusters reported were from the health sector, however testing of healthcare workers has been prioritised in all EU/EEA countries and the UK. Large numbers of clusters were also reported from the food packaging and processing sectors, in factories and manufacturing, and in office settings. Fewer clusters were reported from the mining sector, however some of these clusters have been large.

Occupations are commonly linked to socio-economic status which can also affect the individual’s risk of COVID-19. Moreover, workers in many essential sectors cannot work from home, which may explain why certain occupations have been shown to have a higher risk of COVID-19 infection and mortality than others.

Increased focus on testing for COVID-19 in workplace settings, combined with robust polices on physical distancing, hygiene and cleaning, appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE) where necessary and hand hygiene, particularly in closed settings and situations where workers have extended contact or share transportation and accommodation, will help prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks.

Robust surveillance and contact tracing are essential, as are clear protocols on how to address outbreaks when they are detected.

Within the EU there is a body of occupational safety and health legislation in place, including legislation on the protection of workers from biological agents at work. This legislation sets out technical and organisational measures to be implemented by employers at work places following a workplace risk assessment. Specific guidance is available at EU and national level on how to protect workers and this includes the sectors and occupations where clusters have occurred.

Collaboration between public health and occupational health and safety agencies at local and national level will help with communication and mitigation of the spread of COVID-19 in occupational settings and communities in the EU/EEA and the UK.