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Which industries might be most exposed to Omicron?

With Omicron set to spread across New Zealand over the coming weeks, many businesses are faced with making tough decisions about how to best protect their workforce and ongoing operations. We estimate that absenteeism could rise to 12% of the workforce, if key government forecasts bear out, which would hamper activity.

But what is the risk profile across different industries? We have developed a Workplace Exposure Risk Index (WERI) based on four identifiers of workplace activity to help us understand the potential exposure for each industry.

Close, indoor work, with external face-to-face customers ups the risk

Our modelling expands on the analysis by Emma Vitz in The Spinoff around the risk profile of different jobs to COVID-19. We have evaluated the potential workplace exposure risk for jobs across New Zealand, drawing on Vitz’s methodology of occupation-based work activity metrics.

Four key risk factors are outlined in the government’s Vaccination Assessment Tool, which is legislated by the COVID-19 Public Health Response (Vaccination Assessment Tool) Regulations 2021. The key risk factors are as follows.

  • Does the worker work in an indoor space that is less than 100 square metres?
  • Is it unreasonable for the worker to maintain one-metre physical distancing from other people?
  • Is the worker in close proximity to any other person for more than 15 minutes?
  • Does the worker provide services to people who are vulnerable to COVID-19?

The final factor, estimating customers with vulnerability to COVID-19, isn’t particularly easy to determine. However, for the first three risks, we have mapped O*Net workplace activity metrics from US to NZ occupations, and then to NZ industries. The four factors we have assessed are:

  • physical proximity (from not working near anyone = 0 to nearly touching = 100)
  • the importance of working with external customers, as a proxy for the level of interaction with external customers (low interaction = 0 to high interaction = 100)
  • face-to-face contact, and how often face-to-face discussions occur (never = 0 to everyday = 100)
  • indoors work, with environmentally controlled conditions (never works indoors = 0 to works indoors everyday = 100)

For example, an economist has low physical proximity (33/100) and face-to-face discussions (38/100), but high external customer interaction (94/100) and high indoor working (89/100), with an average of 64/100.

Each occupation has a score between 0 and 100. For each industry, these scores are then weighted by the number of jobs in each occupation within the industry.

Simplistically then, the higher the average score for an industry, the higher the potential workplace exposure will be.

Health, retail, and food services industries on the frontline

Pulling all these figures together suggests that the health industry, unsurprisingly, has the highest estimated potential exposure risk, with an average risk index of 82/100. The health industry has the highest risk scores for physical proximity, external customer interaction, and indoors work.

Retail and accommodation and food services have the next highest exposure scores in the Index. Retail has the highest level of face-to-face interactions, and these two industries have among the highest physical proximity scores too.

At the other end of the spectrum, the primary sector and mining have the lowest potential exposure risk, with the lowest exposure across all four activities. Many people in these industries work outside, don’t work in close proximity to others, and don’t interact much with customers. Manufacturing is similar, with fewer face-to-face interactions, and lower levels of customer contact.

Where to next for businesses?

Across New Zealand, we’ve heard of many management teams coming together this week to determine how to operate at Red and with Omicron in the community. For many businesses, there is a balancing act between maintaining operations, keeping workers safe, and pivoting operating activities.

Working from home is expected to rise again quickly. Some businesses are deliberately shifting to working from home and remote operations to reduce worker exposure. Other businesses have left the choice to workers, who are themselves wanting to reduce their exposure on public transport and in the workplace.

Split shift teams, staggered working days, and reduced worker numbers within offices are all tools being implemented across New Zealand.

Omicron risks will see NZ hunker down

Risks around worker absenteeism mean that businesses are worried about their ability to deliver their services during the Omicron outbreak. Fewer employees will be able to work, if they get Omicron or are forced to isolate. And workers will increasingly look to limit their exposure to Omicron by going out less.

This lower participation, and the different risks to industries outlined above, will limit economic output. We expect to see a weaker economic impulse over the next few months as New Zealand, to a degree, hunkers down.

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