Which occupations have the highest potential exposure to the coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Training health professionals mental and physical healthcare in research, training


The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has created an estimate of exposure to generic disease, and physical proximity to others, for UK occupations based on US analysis of these factors (ONS, 2020).



The ONS  produced a bubble plot on the 11th May to illustrate in their own words the:

clear correlation between exposure to disease, and physical proximity to others across all occupations. Healthcare workers such as nurses and dental practitioners unsurprisingly both involve being exposed to disease on a daily basis, and they require close contact with others, though during the pandemic they are more likely to be using PPE.

From the plot it is clear to see that dentistry (dentist and dental nurse) are in the extreme top right corner denoting the highest exposure to disease and closes proximity to other people in the workplace, not only patients but also staff (Figure 1).

Figure 1.  ONS Exposure to disease vs proximity to others


It is extremely easy to misinterpret this chart and I would argue this could be a classic case of  ‘correlation does not imply causation’.  Though technically we are as a profession, very close to our patients faces this does not imply that we, or the patients are at higher risk of catching a disease. Since the emergence of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in the early 1980’s the dental profession has been fully aware of the risk that blood borne (Hep B+C), and respiratory infections (TB, SARS, MERS, H1N1) pose to both the patients, staff and population in general. The use of high levels of personal protective equipment (PPE), and staff who are specially trained in decontamination and cross infection measures has been normalised in the dental profession for over the past forty years.


To illustrate this, I thought it might be interesting to see how the dental profession compared to similar professional groups using the ONS’s ‘Occupations and exposure to disease’ and  ‘All death occurrences at ages 16 to 74 in England and Wales between 2001 and 2010’ data sets. From the 299 diagnostic codes for mortality I selected the 24 codes that represented respiratory disease excluding cancer (See Annex A). From this data five additional groups were selected where the demographics and data were comparable to dentist’s socio-economically, the 10 years mortality rate and relative risk were calculated based on weighted means.


There were six professional groups were dentists, doctors, pharmacists, solicitors, higher education teaching professionals, and accountants/financial managers. Broadly speaking even though the dentists are physically closest to the patient, and potentially at the greatest risk of exposure they had 3.5 times  less respiratory disease than their non-healthcare peers. Doctors were just slightly lower risk than the dentist (Figure 2, Table 1.)

Figure 2. Respiratory disease vs profession


Table 1. Occupation data

Occupation title Dentists Doctors Pharmacists Solicitors Higher education Accountants
Proximity to others

(ONS units?)

97.0 89.2 72.0 34.0 50.7 45.75
Exposure to disease

(ONS units?)

90.0 91.2 76.0 14.0 11.1 3.4
Total in employment 41,000 296,000 70,000 122,000 178,000 361000
Percentage female 52.6 48.9 67.6 56 46.4 44.8
Percentage aged 55+ 11.8 16.5 14.9 18.9 25.8 16.9
Percentage BAME 28.2 27.9 32.4 14.4 9.9 11.3
Respiratory disease male age 16 to 64 (excl. cancer) 6 33 10 59 95 169
Respiratory disease female age 16 to 64 (excl. cancer) 1 8 8 12 17 46
Respiratory disease total age 16 to 64 (excl. cancer) 7 41 18 71 112 215
Mortality rate (MR) 1.71 1.39 2.57 5.82 6.29 5.96
Relative risk (RR) 1.00 0.81 1.51 3.41 3.69 3.49


From the data presented in this opinion piece we can clearly see that the dental profession works in an environment that poses a high risk of exposure to respiratory disease. We can also see that as a profession we suffer less respiratory disease than our peers, especially those not working in the healthcare sector, and I would propose this is due to the high degree of training regarding cross-infection and careful use of PPE. It is important however to remember that this data was collected between 2001 and 2010 so it does not represent the current situation regarding Covid-19.


ONS. 2020. Which occupations have the highest potential exposure to the coronavirus (COVID-19)? [Online].[Accessed 18th May 2020].

Appendix A. Respiratory diseases (excluding cancer)

Respiratory Disease
Viral pneumonia
Pneumococcal pneumonia
Other bacterial pneumonia
Other specified pneumonia
Unspecified lobar pneumonia
Unspecified pneumonia
Acute bronchitis/bronchiolitis
Chronic bronchitis and emphysema
Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis
Other and unspecified pneumoconiosis
Pneumoconiosis with tuberculosis
Airways disease due to other specific organic dust
Farmer’s lung disease
Bird fancier’s lung
Other and unspecified allergic pneumonitis
Respiratory conditions from chemical fumes
Pulmonary fibrosis




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Mark-Steven Howe

Mark qualified from Birmingham University in 1988. After 4 years in general practice he joined the Royal Air Force Dental Branch on a Short Service Commission serving in the UK and overseas gaining his Diploma and Membership exams in general dental surgery. On leaving the RAF Mark completed his Fellowship to the Faculty of General Dental Practice (FFGDP) and has recently completed an MSc in Evidence-Based Healthcare at the University of Oxford.  Mark has been a full time general dental practitioner at Broadway Dental Care, Worcestershire since 1998. He is a Fellowship assessor for the Faculty of General Dental Practitioners UK, and examiner at the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh.

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