Humans In The Meat Industry

We’ve discussed in the past about animal welfare in the food industry, but i want to extend this research into the people of the food industry. It may be easier for some to justify eating animals, but how will that same logic be used for the workers? Slaughtering animals and processing their flesh is an inherently dangerous industry where company profits consistently take priority over workers’ most basic rights.

Today, U.S. slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities employ over 500,000 workers. In their endless goal of higher volume and greater efficiency, these corporations knowingly jeopardize workers’ safety every day. For decades, the state and federal agencies responsible for ensuring a safe and healthy work environment have thoroughly failed to institute and enforce basic labor laws to protect these workers. The result is an industry where corporations set the rules and government agencies follow. Consequently, workers’ most basic rights and interests are compromised and the animals suffer greatly.

About the Workers

An unknown percentage of workers are undocumented. Many employers knowingly hire undocumented workers in an effort to satisfy the extremely high turnover rate of the industry, which often exceeds 100% annually. In some cases, they provide incentives for current workers to recruit family and friends and even help new workers to create fake social security cards. Undocumented workers are constantly faced with the threat of deportation either by their employer or by federal raids.

Most workers are “at-will” employees, meaning they can be easily fired at a supervisor’s discretion. The threat of termination actually discourages workers from reporting safety concerns, injuries, or other serious issues for fear of being let go. Because of the assumed simplicity of the job, supervisors have been known to use a variety of intimidation tactics to suppress workers’ concerns and make it clear that other people are always available to replace them. As a result, workers are conditioned to accept a hazardous and demeaning work environment if they want to remain employed.

Nature of the Work

Although slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities are highly mechanized, manual labor is required at several stages of production. Workers are usually trained for one specific part of the process. For example, some workers kill and bleed the animals while others make a series of cuts to separate fat, muscle, and bone.

Employees are very aware of the dangerous nature of their work, and often suffer from the high stress environment. When you combine sharp tools and automated machinery in a high-paced, crowded environment, injuries are inevitable.

Health and Safety Hazards

A variety of U.S. and international labor laws are designed to guarantee workers a safe and healthy work environment free from known hazards. However, slaughterhouse and meat processing workers labor each day in conditions with predictable risks despite the fact that employers are aware of safer alternatives. Consequently, many of the injuries and deaths that workers suffer are preventable.

Line Speed

The single largest factor contributing to worker injuries is the speed at which the animals are killed and processed. In an industry where profit margins are slim and volume is everything, workers are endlessly pressured to process more animals in less time. Rather than regulate line speeds for the interest of worker safety, line speed is limited only by federal sanitation laws.

Most facilities operate nearly 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, processing hundreds or thousands of animals each hour. As one worker stated, “The line is so fast there is no time to sharpen the knife. The knife gets dull and you have to cut harder. That’s when it really starts to hurt, and that’s when you cut yourself.”

There are other types of manufacturing industries that take great pride in ensuring safe working conditions and even empower workers to shut down machinery when they feel that conditions are potentially unsafe. Slaughterhouse and meat processing workers are made to feel the opposite, even when they know that conditions are extremely unsafe. They work on in fear of being reprimanded by supervisors.

Long Hours & Repetitive Stress

The combination of long hours and repetitive motion directly leads to increased risk of injury. The workers suffer chronic pains in their hands, wrists, arms, shoulders and back. Repetitive stress injuries are unavoidable under the frantic pace that most facilities choose to operate.

Working an 8-hour shift in this type of environment is physically and mentally exhausting. The situation gets far more dangerous when workers are required to work mandatory overtime. According to one employee: “The last hour of a regular shift is hard. You’re tired and it’s hard to concentrate. Then they tell you to work two hours overtime. That’s when it gets downright dangerous.”

Under-Reporting Injuries

For a variety of reasons, many injuries go unreported in the meat processing industry. In general, workers are afraid to report injuries out of fear of losing their job. In addition, many corporations pay supervisors an annual bonus for minimizing the number of worker comp claims at their facility. This creates a big incentive to under-report injuries. Managers will even give workers incentives for no injuries reported, creating an unintended averse effect. At one facility visited by Food Empowerment Project, a poster in the break room read, “0 Injuries Reported = End of Month BBQ.”

In recent years, the food industry has bragged about dramatic reductions in worker injuries. What they’ve failed to report is that the OSHA injury form was re-written to omit the category of repetitive stress injuries, the most commonly reported injury in the industry.

Freedom of Association

Over the past few decades, advancements in automation have transformed the industry and largely eliminated the need for highly skilled laborers. Consequently, the industry has chosen to abandon unions in favor of a less mandatory workforce. In the process, workers have found it increasingly difficult to exercise their right to organize. According to a comprehensive research report by Human Rights Watch, “Many workers who try to form trade unions and bargain collectively are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized for their exercise of the right to freedom of association.”

When corporations become aware of their workers’ interest in organizing, they often hold mandatory on-the-clock meetings in which employees are lectured on why unions can’t remedy their concerns. Employees can be fired for missing these meetings.

Both union and non-union facilities should strive to protect workers from known hazards, pay them a fair wage and treat them with respect. Furthermore, non-union facilities should never deny workers their right to organize and to express freedom of association.

Quality of Life

Like all agricultural workers, slaughterhouse and meat processing workers struggle to live above the poverty level and provide a decent quality of life for their family. Workers labor long hours in some of the most dangerous working conditions in the country for a relatively low wage. Many female workers also endure acts of sexual harassment perpetrated by co-workers and supervisors.

Most workers are in a continuous state of pain due to the long hours and repetitive nature of their work. They feel disrespected and under appreciated as their supervisors are quick to remind them they can be easily replaced. In the case of undocumented workers, the constant threat of deportation creates added stress and anxiety.

The repetitive stress injuries that workers endure also have a significant influence on their lives outside of work. Living with chronic aches and pains affects every aspect of a person’s life. In addition to the chronic physical pains that workers experience, psychologists are becoming increasingly interested in exploring the psychological effects of working in a slaughterhouse. Workers who are responsible for killing animals routinely observe animals being cut and dismembered while still conscious, as well as being skinned and boiled alive. Hour after hour, day after day the workers interact with countless animals in various states of fear and pain.

A former kill floor manager gave the following account: “The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them-beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.” It is a basic human reaction to feel fear and guilt when killing an animal, just like killing another human. We may have become too comfortable with the idea because someone else has taken over the job for us.

How Does That Impact Me?

These are not foreign food markets, these are American food meat processing facilities. On another note, this is only where the meat is processed. It speaks nothing of the gas-guzzling transportation of the meat, the storage of meats in freezer and bags where it can sit for several weeks, then prepared in often unsanitary conditions in a food line.

And what about the dreaded topic of fast food restaurants? One of the problems with fast food is that it has created a “centralized, industrialized food system, which is very vulnerable to spreading pathogens,” he said. Each day in the United States, about 200,000 people are sickened by food borne pathogens most often found in ground beef. Of those who get sick, 900 are hospitalized, and 14 die annually.

Meat infected with E. coli and other pathogens are distributed long distances because of industrialized production and inadequate government oversight, Schlosser said. Today’s food-processing methods, where parts of many animals go into one burger, may only increase the odds of infection.

A 1996 Agriculture Department study that found 78.6 percent of ground beef samples from processing plants around the country contained microbes that are spread primarily by fecal material.

Another problem is that fast food chains tend to hire unskilled immigrant laborers who end up working in unsafe conditions, but do not know to ask for improvements. The high demand from fast-food companies for meat has led injury rates in slaughterhouses to be three times higher than those in typical factories.

What Does It All Mean?

We need to be aware that the food industry is just as unfair and inhumane towards it’s human workers as it is its animals. Big businesses are locked to the satisfaction of it’s stockholders, not the consumers. This means that as long as there is a demand for fast and easy convenience foods, there will be an ever increasing supply. With it will be worse and worse working conditions, and for which more and more people will be giving their health, if not their lives. We have a responsibility to say, “no.” We don’t need three quarters of a pound of burger. So why are so many people knowingly turning a blind eye to one of the most important aspects of a life: food?


Kandel, William. “Recent Trends in Rural-based Meat Processing.” Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture citing Bureau of Labor statistics. (7/2/10)

Engdahl, W.F. “Bird Flu and Chicken Factory Farms: Profit Bonanza for US Agribusiness.” Global Research. 2005. (6/13/10)

“Workplace Safety and Health: Safety in the Meat and Poultry Industry, while Improving, Could Be Further Strengthened.” A report by the Government Accountability Office. 2005. (7/1/10)

“Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants.” A Human Rights Watch report. 2004. (6/2/10)

“Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants.” A Human Rights Watch report. 2004. Interview with Nebraska Beef Meatpacking line worker, Omaha, Nebraska, December 2003 (6/2/10)

“Workplace Safety and Health: Safety in the Meat and Poultry Industry, while Improving, Could Be Further Strengthened.” US Government Accountability Office.

“Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants.” A Human Rights Watch report. 2004. Interview in Northwest Arkansas, August 15, 2003. (6/2/10)

“Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants.” A Human Rights Watch report. 2004. Interview in Omaha, Nebraska, July 15, 2003. (6/2/10)

Dillard, Jennifer. “A Slaughterhouse Nightmare: Psychological Harm Suffered by Slaughterhouse Employees and the Possibility of Redress through Legal Reform.” Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy, Forthcoming. (7/5/10)

“SEC. 5. Duties.” U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) – Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (6/20/10)

“Slaughterhouse Workers.” Slaughterhouse Workers. Food Empowerment Project. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.

“Will Fast Food Be The Death Of Us?” ABC News. ABC News Network. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.

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