Gardner Builders is installing a new tool on construction sites to boost workers' mental health — wellness pods.

It's important, the company and unions say, for a contractor to address the issues head on and shift the "suck it up" culture at many construction sites.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that suicide rates among construction workers were the second highest of any industry, followed only by those in the mining/oil and gas extraction fields.

Twin Cities-based Gardner Builders plans to install 40 portable wellness pod rooms on jobsites in 2024. If the pilot goes well, the company may install them at all its 260 construction sites across Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The 6-by-10-foot sound-proof pods — which cost $4,000 to $20,000 depending on indoor or outdoor use — are intended to give Gardner's construction workers a private and clean place to take insulin, pump breast milk, talk to a doctor, take a Zoom call or simply get a breather from a tense situation.

Gardner just installed two portable wellness rooms at two indoor job-sites in downtown Minneapolis, one at the Winthrop & Weinstine office in the Capella Tower and the other inside a large financial firm's nine-story office project. An ice house is being converted into a third pod that will be installed outside at a HealthPartners construction site in Apple Valley or Hohenstein's Inc. distribution center in Woodbury.

The effort "is so important and could save lives," said Jessica Stoe, who heads the pod project for Gardner.

On average, some 53 of every 100,000 U.S. construction workers take their own lives each year, the CDC reported. In Minnesota, there were 808 total deaths by suicide in 2021, ranking the state the nation's 22nd highest for that category.

The problem did not bypass Minnesota's building trades community.

"It's bad," said Richard Kolodziejski, spokesman for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. "What you read about is true. We have had [deaths] here within our membership."

Kolodziejski hopes Gardner's efforts catch on.

"Somebody has to be trailblazer, and I hope they are," Kolodziejski said. "The fact that you have an employer who is willing to make those accommodations and investments on a job site is a big step in the right direction."

Outdoor construction sites often have office trailers, but they are crammed with materials and usually "are dirty and unsanitary" and certainly not private. They are not somewhere a worker would want to go when in crisis, Kolodziejski said.

"One in four [employees] has a mental issue. If someone is having something as simple as a panic attack, having a quiet place to go and catch their breath gets that person back to the worksite much sooner," Kolodziedjski said.

Earlier this year, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 82 (DC 82) and the Finishing Trades Institute of the Upper Midwest (FTIUM), both in Little Canada, started offering workers mental health counseling and suicide intervention training at their union halls.

The carpenters union recently started onsite counseling for members at its union halls in Milwaukee and Omaha and is hoping to get grant funding for the service in St. Paul, Kolodziejski said.

Gardner's pods are meant to stop the practice of forcing schedule-crazed construction-workers to hunt for a quiet stairwell, street, bathroom or car each time they need even a moment of privacy, said Gardner Safety Director Brett Smith.

The idea for the wellness pods hatched during a culture-representation team meeting when Derra Range, a Gardner field safety specialist, recounted her friend's experience. At the time, they both worked for another company, making concrete forms for U.S. Bank Stadium.

Her friend had recently given birth and was forced to express her breast milk each day inside a portable restroom because there was no where else to go.

"It was roasting and 98 degrees day after day. It was horrible for her," Range said. "I felt so bad for her and thought there must be another way."

Range and others at Gardner brainstormed solutions, which led to the wellness pods.

"I am pretty sure we are first to do this," Range said. "Maybe in 10 years one will be on every jobsite. Maybe Gardner can say they started a national movement."

Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, president of United Suicide Survivors International, said she is well aware of mental health issues in the construction industry but never heard of a construction company rolling in mobile break rooms on job sites.

"This is an important resource," she said. "There is a lot of stress and overwhelming [situations] that construction workers face every day and being given just a little time to get grounded and get centered so they can focus on the dangerous and the important work that they have to do is a good reset."

Jordan Einck, who manages Gardner's nine-story office demolition project inside 901 Third Avenue in Minneapolis, recently showed visitors the sparkling clean pod. Workers are already using it to do paperwork, call their doctors or just to collect themselves.

Smith, who oversees safety, said he hopes the pods will become as accepted as hard hats. Workers initially resisted them, but they no longer have a stigma at Gardner.

That transition can't come soon enough for Glenn Snyder, construction superintendent for Gardner and a nine-year National Guard veteran.

His cousin died by suicide six months ago. "He suffered drug and mental health issues for a long time and didn't have support," Snyder said.

The pod may offer others a bit of support or a needed quiet place that could help prevent a breakdown, he said while showing a visitor the well-worn silver and black bracelet he wears every day.

The bracelet reads "22 a day," a reminder that 22 veterans each day take their own lives.

Many veterans are in the construction industry, he said, "so this is important."