James Johnson Strauss co-owns Hivemind Construction in West Philadelphia. His wife, Jess, works as a nurse at Pennsylvania Hospital.
In the early days of the pandemic, communities asked construction workers to donate N95 masks — long used to protect them against harmful fumes and contaminated dust — to health-care workers caring for COVID-19 patients.
"There were reports coming in that hospitals weren’t gonna have enough [personal protective equipment], and I was getting more and more worried,” Johnson Strauss, 47, said.
A couple of days before Gov. Tom Wolf shut down the Philadelphia region in March, Johnson Strauss saw N95 masks available at lumberyards. But the yards limited orders to one or two boxes. So he asked the eight fellow co-owners of his small carpentry cooperative to buy, too. All told, they donated a couple hundred masks to the hospital.
“In retrospect,” Johnson Strauss said, "I wish I’d saved a couple.”
On May 1, the governor allowed construction sites throughout Pennsylvania to reopen. But some area construction companies are finding it hard to provide workers with the N95 masks that national safety standards have required for protection from harmful airborne particles while performing certain types of work. That includes sanding building materials, drilling concrete, installing insulation, and disturbing lead paint.
“A lot of builders donated masks they had on hand in the spirit of public citizenship,” said Jerry Howard, chief executive officer of the National Association of Home Builders. "We are hearing from various locations that there is a shortage of the masks.”
Before the pandemic, hardware stores large and small sold N95s to contractors and homeowners tackling weekend projects. Now, Howard said, masks generally are less available in higher population areas harder hit by the pandemic, like the Philadelphia region. And the need for masks will increase as construction ramps up. Many sites that have reopened aren’t yet at peak personnel.
To combat supply shortages, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has temporarily adjusted some of its requirements for both health-care and construction workers, including allowing them to wear N95 respirator masks for longer than their intended use — normally a day or two for construction workers — and to use other types of respirators, such as KN95s shipped from China.
But like health-care workers, some construction workers don’t feel safe using anything other than masks federal regulators have always required. Temple hospital workers say their KN95 masks are falling apart.
Will Giesey, president of the Delaware and Chester County chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, said members are doing what they can, but N95 respirators are scarce.
“There’s lots of masks they’re making available," but "they really won’t help you if you’re working in dangerous dust conditions,” said Giesey, founder and general manager of Philadelphia-based Bellweather Construction, a design-build company. "We have all sorts of masks that are underperforming that we’re making do with.”
OSHA is advising employers to reduce the need for N95 masks at jobsites any way they can, a Department of Labor spokesperson said. The National Association of Home Builders advises those who can’t find masks to minimize dust by vacuuming and wet cutting.
Giesey said he doesn’t generally stockpile protective equipment, and his mask supplier has run out of the N95s he distributes to trade workers and his nine employees. Online retailers have canceled orders for lack of product.
Some contractors are trying to intercept deliveries at stores. “I have heard if you happen to be there when they’re delivered, they have a very limited supply and you can get lucky,” he said. "But that’s very inefficient.”
He also said he’s seen prices two or three times what masks usually cost.
Jim Gallagher, a construction industry consultant at Resolution Management Consultants, based in Marlton, N.J., said that he hasn’t heard about a shortage of N95 masks but that the masks might cost more than some companies want to pay in uncertain economic times, especially when added to the new costs of doing business during the pandemic, including handwashing stations and limits on crews that will prolong projects.
Larger companies that can buy in bulk tend to get equipment before smaller businesses, Gallagher said.
Hivemind Construction has 12 employees. Ashley Arnwine, a co-owner, said she doesn’t feel comfortable restarting carpentry work without N95s.
"We’re basically going to miss out on opportunities to have income, because we don’t want to put ourselves or our employees at risk, because we don’t have the proper masks,” said Arnwine, 34. "We want to start working again, too. I’m just not about to do it if it means putting someone’s life in danger.”
A supplier told the company it might have masks in mid-June at the earliest.
Amy Novak, project executive at the construction management company Torcon, based in Red Bank, N.J., said the company is not having trouble getting protective gear for its roughly 150 field employees. Novak said the company’s ability to keep working on pharmaceutical and health-care projects during the shutdown helped it work out how to get equipment. Still, the company “had to look around” for masks, she said.
"It was a matter of being on top of it and getting your order in early,” Novak said.
At health-care related projects, the supply of N95 masks ″was immediately turned over at the request of the clients,” she said. “Then [we] had to back fill with something less protective than the N95s but protective enough for the [construction] workers vs. the frontline health-care workers.”
One of the company’s first big shipments of masks were KN95s from China. It is reserving its supply of respirators for work involving fumes and particles and following OSHA’s new guidelines for reusing masks.
"That way we can protect the resources we have,” Novak said.
John J. Dougherty, head of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, said members are happy to be back to work and have the protection they need. The union got masks from “wherever we could,” he said.
“Our No. 1 priority is keeping our people employed safely,” he said. "I haven’t had one person call me with a concern.”
The union donated 100,000 masks — mostly N95s — and more than $80,000 worth of protective equipment to area hospitals, he said.
Ben Connors, president and chief executive officer of the General Building Contractors Association, based in Philadelphia, said N95 respirators “have been in short supply because manufacturers have rightfully focused their inventories to health-care workers and first responders.”
Johnson Strauss and Arnwine of Hivemind Construction said they shouldn’t have to compete with health-care workers for N95s.
Arnwine knows of a local demolition crew that plans to work until its supply of masks runs out. She has seen construction workers without respirators doing work that requires them.
She said she wanted to speak up for the workers without proper masks who may not feel comfortable saying anything for fear of losing their jobs. “They don’t want to raise a fuss, so they’re just going to do [the work] even though it’s really unfairly putting their lives at risk," she said.
Christopher Johnson, 29, said he and his fellow workers had to provide their own protective equipment while he worked for a Philadelphia general contracting company from November until he was laid off in March. Before the pandemic, masks “were very much in abundance" at hardware stores and lumberyards. A box of masks was maybe $20. The last time he checked before he was laid off, a box of 10 N95 masks was $40, “which is just wild,” he said. Store workers told him they adjusted prices based on how much the store had to pay.
Johnson knows workers who had to scramble to find just a few masks to use. He gave some to the partner of a coworker at his part-time administrative job. The construction worker hadn’t been able to get masks and was using the same one for several eight-hour shifts.