Shop Talk: SILICA – One Contractor’s Journey Part 1

Words: 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.” 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.” 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. We then 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.”   Be sure to check back next month for the second part of this story. 
Words: Stephanie Civello Executive Assistant, iQ Power Tools and Sarah Hurtado, Marketing Manager, iQ Power Tools Photos: Joel Guth
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