The Potluck

Construction workers have plenty of PPE, even after donations to health care workers

By: - March 31, 2020 11:46 am
construction workers

Construction workers mix concrete for a bridge in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesota’s director of infectious disease said recently that the biggest challenge for frontline health care workers is a lack of personal protective equipment like face masks and goggles. Some health care workers are now using hand-sewn masks or washing and reusing N95 masks.

The construction industry, which relies on much of the same equipment, has no such shortage, yet.

“I have not heard of any shortages,” said Tim Worke, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. “I’ve heard the opposite. We’ve got members we’re very proud of who have dug into their inventories in the time of crisis and donated those materials.”

D.R. Horton, one of the country’s largest homebuilders, donated over 1,800 N95 masks and several hundred pairs of goggles to health care workers in Minnesota, according to Katie Elsstrom, a spokeswoman for a builders’ trade group Housing First Minnesota.

Many smaller contractors have stepped up, too.

Even after those donations, their stockpiles are deep enough to keep projects humming along across the state. Construction has not slowed because of the spread of coronavirus; Gov. Tim Walz exempted all construction workers from his stay-at-home order by classifying them as essential workers.

But construction workers also haven’t needed to dramatically increase their use of masks or tyvek suits. Health care workers, by contrast, are using more safety equipment to cut the spread of the coronavirus, which has played a major role in the shortage of PPE in hospitals.

The disparity now has contractors weighing how much PPE they should give to health care workers while having enough to continue operations.

“I know many have donated to the point of going without themselves,” Renee Ellerman, director of operations at the Builder’s Association of Minnesota, wrote in an email. “Builders know and understand community so they will rise to these times.”

Some workers have called for contractors to be more generous with their stockpiles, while others fear a shortage of PPE in the construction industry would just force workers to go without.

“There’s all kinds of different work where the masks are required, and if there isn’t any, then people are going to be trying to bend the rules and cut corners and creating more hazards,” said Matthew Hopkins, a union bricklayer and instructor.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.