SILICA – ONE CONTRACTOR’S JOURNEYSarah Hurtado
What compels someone to care? Perhaps it’s because something has personally affected you or someone you know. Or maybe it just happens over time; then something strikes a chord in you and opens the floodgates of a desire to bring about change. For Joel Guth, it was both. And thus, the story of his 20-year dance with silica began.
As a third-generation mason contractor, Joel had been in and around masonry his entire life. “I remember being 10 years old and working on my dad’s jobsites, hearing the wet saws humming in the background and smelling the fresh mortar in the air on hot summer days’” Guth reminisced. Like his grandfather and father before him, masonry became his trade, his passion, and his life. “I grew up listening to the old-time masons tell their stories, their successes and failures, and knew this was going to be the life for me.”
Guth’s first job was working for his dad. “I had to work and work hard. Nothing was handed to me and I had to prove to him, to the crews, and to myself that I could do the job.” He started out as a laborer like most masons did, and spent many years learning the trade. In the 80’s, Guth became a mason contractor and opened his first masonry company.
Over the years, he established and owned several more companies alongside his masonry company. One of those companies was focused solely on jobsite safety. Safety became another passion of Guth’s, and the safety company worked in conjunction with the masonry company to develop and maintain best work practices.
Work practices were changing though. While wet cutting was still the most common work practice for masonry, it could be cumbersome and inefficient. Masonry saws were big, bulky, and were often placed at a fixed location far away from where the blocks were laid. With the innovation of the laser welded blade back in the 80’s, dry cutting became a more common practice. Those blades were put on every tool imaginable from wood-cutting tools to coring drills. But, there was something we still didn’t have; a purpose-built, dry cut masonry saw.
During a big stadium project, Guth developed a rudimentary version of a portable, dry cut masonry saw to use on his job. It worked really well on that job, so he made several more for his crews. Guth saw this as an opportunity to bring something new to the masonry industry. With the success of his saws, he approached MK Diamond Products, Inc., a manufacturer of masonry tools, to develop a more refined version. After some consultation from a design firm and feedback from fellow contractors, the result was the MK BX-3, the world’s first purpose built, dry cut masonry saw. It was a hit. They sold several thousand units of this first version that first year alone. During that time, we got a lot of contractor feedback on the saw, and that helped create the BX-4; an updated masonry saw with many more features.
But there was one thing that didn’t change, and that was dust.
Dust has been part of Guth’s life and career since the 80’s and the laser welded, dry cut blades. There was a seemingly endless dust cloud on every jobsite where dry-cutting occurred: not just his own, but jobsites everywhere. “We took safety precautions of course. Our workers always wore PPE and respirators. We didn’t like the dust, but we accepted it as part of the job and dealt with it accordingly,” Guth commented. “Complying with state and federal safety regulations was also part of the job, so knowing the OSHA Silica PEL and trying to understand how to comply was mandatory.”
OSHA on Silica
The OSHA Silica PEL had been established in 1971, but it was difficult to understand and no real protective measures were in place. The National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH) made a recommendation in 1974 that the silica PEL be reduced from 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 50 micrograms. OSHA issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking based on NIOSH’s recommendations the same year, but nothing ever came of it and no final rule was proposed.
It was the sleeping dog that everyone let lie. Still, the OSHA PEL was a topic discussed behind the scenes for years, and NIOSH was a big advocate of a more restrictive PEL and protective measures to be put in place. There were rumbles that a new law was in the works but the old adage, “out of sight, out of mind” was in full swing and, for years, contractors went on with their daily operations.
As Guth’s masonry career moved forward, he took on roles outside of being just a contractor. He dedicated his time to associations that served the masonry industry. Eventually, Guth became President of the California Conference of Masonry Contractors Associations, now known as the Masonry Contractors Association of California.
Alongside a group of contractors, Guth also founded the Masonry Industry Training Association (MITA). “We were concerned about the lack of new masons and mason training within the industry. The objective was to team up with high schools and colleges to promote and teach the masonry industry to the youth of America, and grow the trade,” Guth explained.
It was during this time that Guth was asked to speak at a seminar for workforce development through MITA. There were other seminars occurring at the same location and he decided to attend one on silica dust. The seminar was conducted by a stone manufacturer and Guth thought it couldn’t hurt to learn some new information. Prop 65 was a prominent subject at the time and respirable silica had been identified as a cancer-causing agent under Prop 65. Silica was one of the materials that was required to be listed all material safety data sheets. With his company using stone products like theirs every day and silica being listed as a health risk, it caused Guth to take notice.
“I had no epiphanies that day and no lightbulbs went off in this exact moment, but attending this seminar would eventually change the course of my career and life forever. I started looking at my own jobs more closely. The BX-3 was on every job I had going. Dry cutting was more prominent than ever, and the dust clouds were everywhere. The dust problem was bigger than I had ever imagined, and silica was at the heart of it.”
Out of Necessity Comes Innovation
Guth’s company, Masonry Technology, Inc. (MTI) had been selected to build the masonry for Chino Hills High School in California. The BX-3 was again the tool of choice: and along with it, the dust clouds. During this project, the Santa Ana winds were in full swing, blowing dirt from the area and the dust from the project into a neighboring middle school. When the mother of an asthmatic daughter complained that the dust was aggravating her daughter’s condition, the job was immediately shut down.
“I sought out resources to fix the problem and enlisted my brother, Paul, for help. I wanted to find a dust collection system that could capture the dust right at the source. Paul soon began his search for a dust collection system on the ‘internet’, a search resource that was in its infancy compared to the internet of today. We found nothing. Once again, we decided to build something that hadn’t been built before. We fashioned a blower onto a rolling cart and hooked up a masonry saw to see what it would look like and how it would work. The we took pictures of this new contraption, copied them on to transparency paper and, using a projector, Paul began to draw a conceptual dust collection system. We had to figure out how to filter the air and began testing different types of filters.
The first attempt was an A/C filter. This proved too weak to filter the air properly. Drawing off our years of off-road motorcycling and job site forklift experience, all in a dusty environment, we came up with the idea to use high-flow diesel truck filters instead. Within the next few weeks, we had completely developed and built an original version of a vacuum system, filter system, and dust containment for a masonry saw.”
The Chino Hills High School project was back underway and the dust issue was solved. After completion of this project, Guth went back to MK Diamond Products, Inc. and asked them to manufacture this new system. “I even offered to be the first customer and buy the first ten systems,” Guth recalled. MK did not see the demand for this new system and declined to manufacture it. Guth continued to use their invention on more and more projects. For the next few months, he and his brother analyzed what we liked and didn’t like about this new invention and came up with a list of improvements for the system.
“I spent that year looking at my own safety programs, work practices, and methods. Changes needed to be made. It became very apparent that an entire line of tools would be needed to make these important changes,” said Guth. This led to the creation of a new company called Industrial Manufacturing. They leased some space adjacent to their construction office, hired additional staff, and brought brother, Paul, on full-time to develop these new products. This led to Masonry Tec Products, Inc. and the Jack Vac product line: the world’s first dry cut masonry saws with an integrated vacuum system, filter system, and dust containment.
Understanding the PEL
For 15 years, Guth has continued reading up on silica, attending more seminars, and learning everything he could on the OSHA Silica Standard. “My team and I also spent the better part of a year learning the standards and regulations from 35 different countries. I spoke on the silica subject numerous times and, by devising an easy to understand mathematical example, it helped people to better understand the OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL).” Guth explained. 250 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air, or 250 µg/m3, was the current OSHA PEL. “For years, there had been talk of a final OSHA Silica Rule being created. We knew it would be more restrictive, and we knew it was coming soon.”
With the OSHA Silica debate growing stronger, Guth took on the challenge of OSHA and did his part to stop the all-out ban of dry cutting within the construction industry. He understood that banning dry cutting could potentially cripple the industry. Joel testified in front of Cal OSHA and Fed OSHA multiple times; he showcased the value of dry cutting and alternative methods to eliminate the dust other than water. Dry cutting using a vacuum is a cleaner and more efficient work practice. Guth is working with the MCAA and other associations to have vacuum systems added to Table 1 as an acceptable work practice within the standard.
Building The Team
The more Guth learned about silica, the more dedicated he became to finding a solution to the silica problem that was taking over the construction industry. In 2012, Joel with his brother, Paul, took their JacVac line of products and rebranded the company as iQ Power Tools. The Guth brothers’ passion evolved into the heartbeat of iQ Power Tools. Over the last 6 years, iQ Power Tools has disrupted the power tool industry with its innovation and desire to achieve better for the contractor. With each tool that has been released, it has been iQ’s prominent objective to eliminate the silica dust while maintaining maximum efficiency.
“The best part of being a member of the iQ team, is working for a company whose main objective is to better the industry and essentially save lives,” shares Sarah Hurtado, Marketing Manager at IQ. “Silica has become a buzzword, which has every manufacturer scrambling to make an attachment or add on to meet the new silica standard. iQ was creating this technology before anyone even cared to notice. I’m proud to be part of a company who values each contractor and is doing their part to make this world a little bit better for the rest of us – even if it’s one dust cloud at a time.”
Becoming the Silica Expert
Guth’s passion for learning and constant improvement has been a needed push within the industry. His compassion and leadership have made him a prominent figure within the masonry community. Not only has Guth given the industry his dustless technology, but he has become a great speaker and teacher. He has been very vocal about the harms of silica and has made it his goal to educate contractors within the masonry, hardscape and tile industries.
Because of his efforts, there are resources and education about silica and the OSHA PEL. Guth has donated his time to write articles for multiple industry magazines concerning silica, (including Masonry Magazine), has given silica presentations at international industry conventions, as well as been a guest speaker for large construction companies training their employees about safety. After hearing him speak about silica and how it’s affected his life, his health, and the health of those he loves, it’s hard to not reevaluate your own jobsites and work practices.
Joel Guth is the perfect example of a man who saw a problem and found a solution for it. He fought for something he believed in with integrity and passion. His passion for best work practices, education, and better quality of life for all construction workers is infectious. “Working under the mentorship of Joel Guth has been the highlight of my career. He has a vision for a healthier, safer construction industry that you can’t help but share. I consider it an honor to work for the special and innovative company that Joel and his brother Paul have built.”, says Stephanie Civello, Joel’s assistant.
There are many more upcoming leaders within the masonry industry who see Joel as a mentor and continue to push the boundaries of tradition. Guth’s innovation has taken masonry to a new level. The war on dust is not over, but with Guth as the leader, our industry has a much greater chance of winning.