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By: Kendall Jones on March 19th, 2020

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Construction Firms Asked to Donate N95 Face Masks to Local Hospitals

Operating Insights | COVID-19

We are currently living in some interesting times.

COVID-19, the novel coronavirus outbreak, was labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday, March 11. In the days following that announcement, we have seen our normal, everyday live upended. Many businesses scuttled to get the resources in place for employees to work from home. Schools, fitness centers, sporting events, and movie theaters have all closed. Restaurant, bars, and breweries have been restricted to drive-thru, curbside pickup, and delivery options for the time being.

Panic buying has left grocery stores’ shelves emptied of hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and paper towels as well as meats, bread, canned goods, and other essentials. Many have cut back hours of operation in order to restock and sanitize their stores as well as setting aside special hours for the elderly and other at-risk shoppers to get what they need before opening to the general public.

Impact on Construction Industry

At this point, it's still too early to tell when life will return to normal but the construction industry is also starting to feel the effects of the coronavirus outbreak and what a long-term shutdown of activity could mean. If county and city building and planning departments start shutting down, it could put a halt to current and upcoming construction projects because permits aren’t being issued and inspections aren’t being conducted.

At the same time, contractors are looking at how to keep their projects on schedule while also trying protect their workers and prevent the spread of the coronavirus on the jobsite.

In Boston, Mayor Martin Walsh ordered all construction activity in the city, except for emergency work, to stop starting on March 17. The shelter-in-place order in the San Francisco Bay Area has put a halt to all construction activity, with the exception of housing projects.

The PennDOT ordered all contractors to stop working on federally-aid projects as well as cancelling some upcoming bid lettings. This week, the state offices in South Dakota are closed and only essential employees are allowed to report to work. Since DOT construction inspectors aren’t on the list of essential employees, all but two high-priority DOT projects in the state are closed to contractors. Work is expected to resume on all SD DOT projects next week.

A Shortage of Face Masks and Respirators

Another issue many construction companies are facing is a shortage of face masks and respirators, or more specifically N95 respirators.

Respirators are worn, based on the respiratory hazard, to protect construction workers from gases, dusts, vapors, and fumes they come in contact with regularly on the jobsite. Common hazards include asbestos exposure when doing demolition and remediation work, lead dust from welding and cutting, silica dust from grinding and cutting concrete, and vapors from paints, coatings, and spray foam insulation.

In addition to engineering, work practice, and administrative controls that employers must use to protect workers from exposure to respiratory hazards, it is sometimes necessary for respirators to be worn. Employers are required by OSHA to provide workers with the proper respirator based on the specific hazard they are exposed to on the job.

Again, panic buying, along with a higher than expected demand by the healthcare industry across the globe for N95 respirators, has depleted supplies across the country. Without these respirators, construction companies are going to be unable to complete certain tasks if they don’t have the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to provide their workers with, which they legally must do. At the same time, ealthcare workers depend on these respirators to prevent contracting certain diseases and viruses, like the coronavirus, when diagnosing and treating patients. 

delayed projects reports

What Are N95 Respirators?

So, what does N95 mean? N95 is a rating designation from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The N means that the respirator is not oil resistant and the 95 means it removes 95% of all particles that are at least 0.3 microns in diameter.

There are also R, resistant to oil, and P, oil proof respirators. The rating numbers also include 99, which removes 99% of particles that are at least 0.3 microns in diameter and 100, which removes 99.97% of all particles that are 0.3 microns in diameter or larger. Respirators are selected based on the respiratory hazard present on the construction and employers are responsible for ensuring workers are provided with the correct type and fit along with training on use and safety when wearing them.

There are also surgical N95 masks which in addition to being approved by NIOSH, are also approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are fluid resistant to a certified level measured against a stream of artificial blood directed at the respirator.

A Public Call for Donations

An added twist came on Tuesday, March 17 during a press conference from the White House Coronavirus Task Force. During the briefing, Vice President Pence made the following request:

“We would make one specific request and that is we would urge construction companies to donate their inventory of N95 masks to your local hospital and forgo additional orders of those industrial masks because of what the president asked to be included in legislation moving through the Congress today, those industrial masks that they use on construction sites, are perfectly acceptable for healthcare workers to be protected from a respiratory disease. But we’re asking construction companies—that our president knows very well from his background—we’re asking them to donate their N95 masks to their local hospitals and also forgo making additional orders.”

It's a tough ask. On the one hand, it’s vitally important that healthcare workers have the protection they need to diagnose treat patients and prevent themselves from contracting the virus as much as possible. On the other hand, you’re asking contractors to put the livelihood of their companies and workers at stake by donating their N95 respirators.

Obviously, the need for N95 respirators in healthcare is dire, and only expected to get worse as manufacturers try and keep up with demand, with some hospitals like Seattle Children’s in Washington and Cambridge Health Alliance and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts are putting out the call through social media and local media for donations.

Update: According to ProPublica, Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) reached out to the White House for guidelines on the request. He advised member chapters that he had not received any advance notice the request was coming and had no other details on specific instructions regarding the vice president's statements.

The Department of Health and Human Services, on the White House's behalf, did respond to Sandherr a few days later. Instead of making donations directly to hospitals, he was informed that members of AGC should make an inventory of PPE such as N95 respirators, protective suits, and booties to share with the administration.

How to Donate

At the time of this writing, the White House has offered no further guidelines on how construction companies can facilitate the Vice President’s request, how to prioritize protecting their workers versus donating their stock of N95 respirators, or identified which hospitals and healthcare providers are in need of additional face masks and respirators.

If you are a construction company that has N95 respirators to spare and would like to donate them, your best bet is to reach out to your local hospitals to determine if they are accepting donations and how to make them.

If you have any information on hospitals in your area currently taking donations of N95 respirators or other PPE, please post it in the comments below.


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About Kendall Jones

Kendall Jones is the Editor in Chief at ConstructConnect. He has been writing about the construction industry for years, covering a wide range of topics from safety and technology to industry news and operating insights.

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