For those of you who are just joining us in Silica: One Contractor’s Journey – Part 3, parts 1 and 2 are available online at MasonryMagazine.com. Part 1 of the story details the account of Joel Guth‘s journey into silica exposure, related to his career as a mason and masonry contractor. Part 2 of Joel’s journey talks about his education and working with Cal/OSHA and Fed/OSHA.

A New Chapter

Many chapters of this contractor’s story have already been written, etched in the silica-laden stone on which my world was built for over thirty years. Still, there are so many more chapters to write and many more stones left unturned.

The time I have invested in learning about silica and educating the construction industry are both positive things. Knowledge is power, but it’s not enough. The real power lies in bringing about change. How do you bring about a meaningful change to an entire industry? The construction industry is built on the backs of hardworking tradesmen whose education is steeped in tradition: tradition that spans generations.

A New Vision

As a third-generation mason contractor with over 30 years in the trade, my calling seemed clear. It was the same calling of my father, and my father’s father before him. The calling to build. There is tremendous satisfaction in seeing the structures that our family and company have built over the years. Yet, after learning so much about silica, I knew each building came at a price. The price was paid with every stone we cut dry, and every breath we took while cutting.

My eyes were opened, and now they could not be shut.  I could no longer look away from the dangers and problems associated with dry-cutting. This was a problem that needed to be solved and we figured out the solution: the world’s first dry-cut masonry saw with integrated dust collection – the JackVac.

I was now at a fork in the road. On one path, I would continue my career as a mason, building structures that would live on for many years. On the other, I would step into uncharted territory by creating a tool company and attempt to bring this saw to the masses. The first path was an easy walk; the other was a leap of faith.

I leapt.

A New Challenge

This new endeavor required that I invest an immense amount of initial personal capital along with reinvesting all profits back into the company.  This was the first of many leaps of faith on my new path. I was personally invested in its success and, because I believed in the product and the change it would bring about, I knew I had to give it everything I had.

The foundation of any great company is a great product, whether that product is a masonry building or a power tool. We knew we had a great product in the JackVac line. When we launched Masonry Tec Products to produce our new line of saws, our company’s primary focus was on improving the JackVac design along with building new tools that we could use in my own masonry company.

The original JackVac line started with a 2000 series dust collection system mated to a 20” masonry saw, a 1000 series system combined with the MK-BX3, and the 360 series 14” masonry saw with an integrated vacuum system, filter system, and dust containment. There was nothing like it in the world.

Because I still had my masonry company, Masonry Technology Incorporated, we were able to use our job sites as our research and development platform to develop new products. We were moving at a furious pace. During that time, we built and documented over 150 new tools that we used for my masonry company. The effect was twofold; we received immediate feedback from our crews and our shop’s quick response and turnaround time to improve the tools was incredible.

Our crews were very blunt in telling us what they didn’t like about the tool and how they thought we needed to improve it. This feedback gave us the opportunity for long-term evaluation and endurance testing. If we could build a product that would stand up to the abuse from my crews, I knew it would measure up in the masonry industry. This gave me the confidence to put my name on these products and sell them to my fellow masonry contractors.

Hidden Treasure

I knew we had something special in the JackVac, and contractors would buy it. But in order for people to buy your great product, they have to know about it first. I started to understand this after we started Masonry Tec Products (MTP) to sell our JackVac product line.

In the early years, the JackVac products were primarily sold by word of mouth by the other contractors I met through our associations. We would also attend and support some of the masonry conventions each year. We received a great response and sold a few units to the forward-thinking mason contractors of the time. Damian Lang, CEO of Lang Masonry and EZG Manufacturing, was the first mason contractor to buy one of our large JackVac systems.

Although many contractors liked our products, they were reluctant to spend several thousand dollars to solve a silica dust problem they didn’t even know they had. At that time, the OSHA Silica Standard was still more than ten years in the future.

We knew it would take time for contractors to buy into our new solution. However, we also knew that eventually masons would become aware of how big the silica problem really was. They would learn how silica could harm them with each cut and each breath, and we would be there to help them find a safer, healthier way to work.

The Dirt on Silica

Dust was a problem for California contractors, even if they didn’t fully know the scope. Although the Fed/OSHA silica issue was relatively quiet, the silica issue in California caught fire. In the summer of 2007, someone brought a gas power-cutter into a government meeting, fired it up, and scared everyone in the room. Along with the saw, they also brought in a retired mason with silicosis, rolling his oxygen tank. The message they were sending to the politicians is that these tools are killing people.

Within 45 days of that demonstration, there was a bill on California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk that would outlaw all dry-cutting in the state and the Governor was ready to sign it. True or false the message was heard; these tools are killing people.

Several associations, including CALPASC, CCMCA, and the MCAA, stepped in to help. After two years of hard work and dedication from Bruce Wick, risk management director for CALPASC, and Julie Trost, executive director of the MCAC, along with many others, we were able to work with all the stakeholders to rewrite the Cal/OSHA Silica Standard.

It was through that two-year process that I had to take my silica education even deeper, learning about all the aspects of the silica dust that we masonry tradesmen and construction workers were exposed to.

Learning the process of how OSHA standards and regulations are written was an invaluable experience. Working with multiple government agencies and departments, several trade associations, and labor organizations throughout the country was a challenge to say the least, but, together we affected a meaningful change.

A Dust-Free Future

The vision was clear, the challenge was accepted, and the next chapter was written. The silica problem was coming into the construction industry’s focus, and we knew we were ready with the solution. But, was the construction industry ready for us?

Stay tuned for Part 4 in next month’s edition of Shop Talk with Joel.

Words: Joel Guth and Stephanie Civello
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