Unions move quickly to keep tradespeople safe on jobsites

St. Paul Pipefitters Local 455 delivered gang boxes filled with cleaning supplies and protective gear – and, yes, toilet paper – to its larger job sites last month. Smaller sites received supplies as well. “We want these job sites to stay open,” Business Manager Tony Poole said. “The best way to have our members continue to work is to keep them safe.”


Minnesota’s construction industry has not shut down during the pandemic, but it’s not business as usual on the job site either, as local Building Trades unions and their contractors make adjustments to prevent the virus’ spread and keep tradespeople healthy.

“Any time you work construction, there’s high risk involved. These are risky jobs,” Pipefitters Local 455 Business Manager Tony Poole said. “But this virus, it definitely changes the game.”

The outbreak prompted Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz to declare a state of emergency in March, closing most public gathering places and ordering businesses to allow their employees to work from home if possible.

For tradespeople, of course, it’s not.

Construction unions worked with the governor to get their industry on the “essential services” list, allowing work to continue. Now, unions are working to give their members the tools they need to stay safe as they continue building the state’s critical infrastructure.

That starts with education.

The Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council has created a page on its website with an evolving list of resources on the virus and best practices for preventing its spread on the job site. Most craft unions also maintain COVID-19 resources on their local websites.

“We’re sending out communications through our website constantly, just about every day, with CDC recommendations and information about COVID,” Poole said. “And we’re sending mass texts to all members when something is particularly important.”

Unions also are working with their contractors to incorporate best practices into the workflow, LIUNA Local 563 Business Manager Joe Fowler said.

“We’ve been really working with the contractors on social distancing,” Fowler said. “Providing more sanitization stations. Requiring workers to break separately. Forgoing toolbox talks every morning, or doing them weekly instead of daily.”

In some cases, unions are supplying needed equipment to their members directly. Local 455 delivered gang boxes stocked with hand sanitizer, soap, disinfectant cleaner, paper towels, toilet paper, gloves, N-95 masks and more to several large jobsites across the east metro, after hearing from workers concerned about sanitation.

“If you’re working around somebody who’s not wearing a glove, and you’ve got to work on that same piece of equipment?” Poole said. “We want our members to be able to disinfect what they feel they need to disinfect. Rather than wait, the local took it upon itself to supply some of these sites with what our people need.”

Union leaders are taking COVID-19 – and their members’ concerns about the pandemic – seriously, Fowler added.

“We want to keep people working, but we don’t want any of our members working in an environment that they feel is unsafe,” he said. “If they feel that way, they need to reach out. We’re still open for business.”

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