New Study Will Look at Risks to Transit Workers From Virus

Riders wear masks on a New York City subway train on July 22, 2020.

Riders wear masks on a New York City subway train on July 22, 2020. STRF/STAR MAX/IPx


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A research team will focus on New York City, where the coronavirus has taken a heavy toll on the transit workforce.

With the coronavirus infecting thousands of New York City bus and subway workers this year, claiming the lives of dozens of them, a team of academic researchers is planning to investigate the risks that these public employees face on the job.

New York University’s School of Global Public Health said Thursday it would launch a series of studies looking at the physical and mental health risks the pandemic is posing for Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers, as well as other effects it is having on their jobs. They’re planning to coordinate with Transport Workers Union Local 100 to carry out the project.

“Our research aims to identify and better understand the individual and workplace factors that put this essential workforce at risk for Covid-19, in an effort to protect their health and wellbeing,” Robyn Gershon, a professor who will lead the project, said in a statement.

“We need to address this important gap in our knowledge about occupational exposure to coronavirus, and use these findings to determine what additional protective measures are needed going forward,” she added.

The announcement for the study says over 90 TWU Local 100 members have died from the virus. News reports indicate that about 130 MTA workers died due to Covid-19, the respiratory illness the virus causes, and that upwards of 4,000 of the system’s workers have been infected. 

Many of the infections and deaths occurred in the March to June timeframe when New York was one of the nation’s worst hotspots for the virus outbreak.

Throughout the pandemic, keeping transit systems running has generally been considered “essential” work in major cities. But trains and buses, as well as some transit stations, are enclosed spaces that significant numbers of people typically pass through.

This means that transit employees have been required to work in potentially risky environments for contracting the illness, particularly earlier on during the outbreak, before safety equipment like plexiglass shields to protect bus drivers started to become more common.

Some studies from other countries that have more successfully contained the coronavirus than the United States haven’t found links between transit and virus clusters, which a former New York City transportation commissioner pointed out in The Atlantic last month. 

One of the first steps with the research project will be a survey of about 200 transit workers. 

Researchers will examine issues like the timing and effectiveness of safeguards, such as mask use and various cleaning protocols, that the MTA took to protect workers from Covid-19. 

"This will be the first time outside public health experts gather information from transit workers about their experiences during the pandemic and put the MTA’s actions under the microscope,”  Tony Utano, president of TWU Local 100 said in a statement.

“This is an important next step not just for NY transit workers but transit workers everywhere," he added.

The researchers are planning to come up with a document that includes best practice guidelines and recommendations for transit workers that is expected to be finished in the fall.

NYU says that Gershon leads a team experienced in conducting research on high-risk jobs and that her past work has focused on issues like the emergency evacuations of high-rise buildings following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. A previous project she worked on with TWU Local 100 studied transit worker noise exposure and hearing loss.

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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