Worker Profiles
Trade Secrets
Bernard Skaggs

“My hands began to get sore, and they began to swell some. My fingers got so sore on the ends, I couldn't button a shirt, couldn't dial a phone. And I had thick skin like it was burned all over the back of my hand, back of my fingers, all the way up under my arm, almost to my arm pit. And after enough time, I got like thick places on my face, right under my eyes.”

Bernard Skaggs landed a job with the BF Goodrich plant in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1955. The factory mixed vinyl chloride gas into a gooey dough that was then dried and processed into pellets for PVC plastic. Skaggs' job was to climb down into the 1100 gallon mixing vats and scrape out the hard knots of “kettle crud” left behind between batches. “They told us it wasn’t dangerous,” Skaggs recalls. “They said the only thing we had to watch about the vinyl chloride was not getting enough of it to pass out.”

“There was vinyl chloride everywhere. The overhead valves leaked and dripped. Most of them dripped on the floor all the time. Not only could you smell it, you could see it. It would get into a vapor, and through the sunlight in waves, waves, and you'd see it. It was all the time that way.”

When Bernie Skaggs started having problems with his hands, he first went to the company doctor – who assured him the condition was not related to his work. But Bernie's wife "kept after me" to go to a doctor in the small town where he had been raised.

"And he said, 'That's something you're working in.' He said, 'You go back up there and tell that company doctor, find out what that is.' And that was his opinion of it. Like I said, he was just an old country doctor, and I had known him all my life. He was the first, and probably the only one I saw that got it correct to start with."

Bernie's hands were eventually x-rayed. He remembers his shock looking at x-rays that showed the bones in his fingertips had disappeared; his bones were being destroyed. The condition is called acroosteolysis.

"I knew of some people that had the same problem I did, and I got checking around in the plant. There was only somewhere between four and six hundred people that worked in that plant, and out of this number of people, I came up with seven that had the same problem I did. So it wasn't rare with us. That made me think, well, you know, it must be something I'm working in."

B.F. Goodrich knew it was vinyl chloride – and had secretly informed other companies that there was a problem, admitting in a confidential memo that, “There is no question but that skin lesions, absorption of bone of the terminal joints of the hands, and circulatory changes can occur in workers associated with the polymerization of PVC.” But Bernie Skaggs was never told that the disappearing bones in his hands was connected to exposure to vinyl chloride on the job.
Bernard Skaggs
Bernard Skaggs in the Army

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Worker in plant
Skaggs' job was to climb down into mixing vats and scrape out the hard knots of "kettle crud."

PVC Document
"B.F. Goodrich is sharing its knowledge with all PVC manufacturers. They hope all will use discretion in making the problem public." October 24, 1966

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Photo Credits: Bernard Skaggs, ABC