And another thing, for Peace sakes...
The Most Dangerous Job in America
Slaughterhouses and animal-processing plants are among the most dangerous places to work in America today. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly one in three slaughterhouse workers suffers from illness or injury, compared to one in 10 workers in other manufacturing jobs.11 Slaughterhouse workers are also 35 times more likely to suffer from repetitive stress injuries than their counterparts in other manufacturing jobs.12 The rate of injury to slaughterhouse workers is most likely even higher than the official numbers because many workers have trouble communicating with human resources staff, plant management is often dismissive of worker claims (making it difficult to file an official injury complaint), and workers are pressured to refrain from reporting work-related injuries to keep the plant’s insurance costs low. The Human Rights Watch report “Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants” states, “Almost every worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report began with the story of a serious injury he or she suffered in a meat or poultry plant, injuries reflected in their scars, swellings, rashes, amputations, blindness, or other afflictions.”13
The workers who kill animals are at constant risk of being hurt as the animals fight for their lives. Chickens and turkeys peck and struggle to escape: One researcher in a slaughterhouse reports that as chickens are being hung by their legs to be killed, “The birds, weighing approximately five pounds each, fight back by pecking, biting, and scratching the hangers …. Then, as workers finally hoist the birds onto the hooks, the chickens urinate and defecate out of desperation, often hitting the workers below.” Many cows and pigs are still completely conscious when they are hung up by their hind legs and their throats are slit, and they kick, thrash, defecate, and vomit as they die. Killing animals who do not want to die is inherently dangerous work, but the ever-increasing line speeds, repetitive motions, filthy working conditions, and other hazards mean that employees are putting their lives on the line every time they clock into work. 14
Struggling to Keep Up
One of the most serious hazards for slaughterhouse workers is the high line speed. Roughly 10 billion animals are killed in our nation’s slaughterhouses each year, and slaughterhouses are constantly increasing their line speed to meet this demand. Workers are handling frightened animals—many of whom weigh hundreds of pounds—along with knives, hooks, and heavy machinery, and all the while, they’re under constant pressure to kill more animals in less time. Slaughterhouse employees must hoist, kill, or cut several animals each minute, usually with few breaks and no time to stop to sharpen their knives. Sometimes workers aren’t even given time to relieve themselves during their shift: One Teamster investigator reports that during meetings with slaughterhouse workers, “People were crying, talking about being covered in diarrhea the entire shift because the supervisor wouldn’t let them go to the bathroom.”15
This frantic and fast-paced environment does not provide workers with any opportunity to slow the line to make sure that they are following proper safety precautions—in fact, the line moves so quickly that animals aren’t even allowed enough time to die, so workers are often forced to hack them apart as they are still struggling to escape. One worker says, “The chain goes so fast that it doesn’t give the animals enough time to die. People don’t have enough time to wash their knife if it falls on the floor.”16 Martin Fuentes, a slaughterhouse worker in Oregon, has been injured three times by cattle who were struggling against death, including a kick to his arm by a struggling steer that plunged a knife into his wrist. “The live cows cause a lot of injuries in there,” he says.17
A worker told Gail Eisnitz, author of the widely acclaimed book Slaughterhouse, that employees are routinely forced to cut animals up while the animals are still conscious, saying “[Our legger] gets beef that’s still conscious all the time. Sometimes almost every one … I’ve seen beef still alive at the flankers, more often at the ‘ears and horns.’ That’s a long way.”18 In The Washington Post article about slaughterhouses—entitled “They Die Piece by Piece”—former animal-processing plant employee Tim Walker says that he was fired after complaining to the Humane Society that animals were cut apart while they were still alive. “I complained to everyone—I said, ‘Lookit, they’re skinning live cows in there.’ Always it was the same answer: ‘We know it’s true. But there’s nothing we can do about it.’”19
Amid the commotion and the struggle to keep up with the speed of the line, workers’ knives inevitably slip, and people are injured or even killed. A former slaughterhouse nurse says, “I could always tell the line speed by the number of people with lacerations coming into my office.”20 A poultry plant worker from Arkansas told Human Rights Watch, “Everybody is on top of each other, so a lot of people get cut, especially their hands. Blood and flesh fall into the meat. The birds just keep going.”21 Another worker says, “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.”22 Despite the fact that workers are getting hurt because they’re struggling to keep up, the farmed-animal industry continues to put profits over people by continuing to demand faster line speeds.
The fast line speeds also make it difficult for the workers to take the time to remove contaminated animal carcasses from the line. David Carney, chair of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, has seen meat go down the line that is “contaminated with feces, abscesses, tapeworms, hair, hid buckshot, chewing tobacco, and even cactus thorns … cattle heads so disgusting that contamination oozes out of their skulls.”23 According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, “The same things that contribute to the contamination of the meat are what make it more likely that people are going to get hurt. The only reason it’s been allowed to continue is that people don’t know. Even if you have no compassion for the poor and the illegal in this country, if you eat meat, or the people you love eat meat, you should care.”24
Read more about the hazards of working for the animal industry.
11 Schlosser 172.12 Schlosser 173.13 Human Rights Watch 29.14 Russell Cobb, “The Chicken Hangers,” In the Fray 2 Feb. 2004.15 Karen Olsson, “The Shame of Meatpacking,” The Nation 16 Sep. 2002.16 Olsson.17 Jim Lynch, “Workers’ Safety Also an Issue at Meat Plant,” The Oregonian 25 Feb. 2001.18 Gail Eisnitz, Slaughterhouse (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books 1997) 215.19 Joby Warrick, “They Die Piece by Piece,” The Washington Post 10 Apr. 2001: A01.20 Gardner.21 Human Rights Watch 38-9.22 Human Rights Watch 24.23 The Center for Public Integrity, Safety Last: The Politics of E. Coli and Other Food-Borne Killers, Center for Public Integrity, Washington, D.C., 1998, 17-8.24 Olsson.