Seafood workers at higher risk for contracting COVID-19, study finds

Seafood processing workers were twice as likely to contract COVID-19 as workers in other food industries.

A new study by the University of New Hampshire has found that workers in the seafood industry were twice as likely to contract COVID-19.

The study – “The direct and indirect effects of a global pandemic on U.S. fishers and seafood workers” – found that the average amount of seafood workers testing positive for COVID-19 per 1,000 workers was more than double that of other food industries. The study found that there were an estimated 65 positive cases per 1,000 seafood workers, compared to 31 cases per 1,000 workers in the wider food industry.

“Seafood workers were about twice as likely to contract COVID-19 as workers in other parts of the overall U.S. food system,” the study stated.

The pandemic had other direct impacts on seafood workers as well. Due to restrictions on crew size due to social-distancing requirements, crew members on fishing vessels often wound up working longer hours, with more physical taxation. Income loss resulting from market fluctuations also had an impact on worker safety, as “fishing boat captains likely had less money to invest in safety, which can increase the potential for hazardous exposures on fishing vessels,” the study said.

The results were not identical across the entire U.S., however. The study found that seafood employees in Alaska had a higher rate of catching COVID-19, in part due to the seafood processing industry and the complicated nature of labor there – with most processing plants employing migrant workers. In addition, at the state level, COVID-19 policies were implemented at a slower pace, and the logistics of medical care in the state made acquiring supplies difficult.

“[In] comparison to other states, Alaska either lagged, or did not implement, many social distancing restrictions and has a low vaccination rate as of fall 2021,” the study said.

The study compared Alaska to New Bedford, Massachusetts, which fared better in terms of COVID-19 outbreaks. The town and state “were more preemptive in responding to COVID-19,” and emphasized the seafood sector in its preparations. That led New Bedford to be “a leader among port towns.”

Despite being a leader, the study found that New Bedford still fared poorer than other towns in the state in terms of vaccination rates – in part due to vaccine hesitancy and “lack of time in daily schedules and access to health care for certain individuals.”

Overall, workers in the processing sector were more likely to be directly impacted by COVID-19, according to the study, and due to the demographics of most workers in processing facilities this resulted in occupational segregation based on gender, race, and immigration status.

“Available evidence suggests workers in the processing sector were more likely to be directly impacted by COVID-19 as outbreak events were concentrated in processing plants and at-sea processing vessels. It is crucial to note that twice as many people are employed in seafood processing and distribution than commercial fishing and most of these workers are women, minorities, and immigrants,” the study said.

Fishers also faced challenges that were harder to account for due to the nature of working on a vessel, the study added.

“There is still limited guidance on how PPE should be worn on vessels specifically,” it said.  

Photo courtesy of Ai Han/Shutterstock


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