Dangerous Jobs, Cheap Meat

The Human Toll Of Our Meat Habit

Americans love meat – we have one of the highest rates of consumption in the world.

While U.S. shoppers enjoy relatively low prices and an array of choices, there is a high human price tag. The more than 500,000 men and women who work in slaughterhouses and meat processing plants have some of the most dangerous factory jobs in America.

The meatpacking industry has made a lot of progress on worker safety since publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” in 1906, but some things remain the same: the work is mostly done by immigrants and refugees; they suffer high rates of injuries and even, sometimes death; and the government lags in oversight.

Harvest Public Media has been investigating worker safety in the meatpacking industry for over a year. We found:

  • Some workers pay a high price for their job, some with their life and others with long-term injuries. “Employees aren’t cattle that go through the chutes,” said the widow of one worker. “They’re people with families.”
  • The government’s fines for worker deaths and injuries are “embarrassingly low,” according to a former OSHA official. The average initial fines leveled on multi-million dollar meatpacking companies are $19,340 per case, which are negotiated down to, on average, $10,993.
  • Federal regulators are creating enforcement programs meant to lower injuries and deaths at meatpacking plants. A new reporting regulation that kicked in last year found roughly 145 serious accidents at the top four U.S. meat companies – injuries that had previously gone unreported to the very authorities charged with keeping workers safe.

Find all of the stories in our series below.

Marshalltown, Iowa, has been home to a slaughterhouse since at least 1880 when the original plant that is now JBS Marshalltown Pork was built.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

When I walked onto the floor of the JBS Marshalltown Pork Plant in central Iowa, I expected the sensory assault to hit my nose first. But turns out it was my ears that first felt the most severe impact. The processing line is noisy. It’s also chilly, to protect the meat. That also prevents the sort of noxious smell I had anticipated. Instead of an animal stench, my nose mostly registered cleaning products and a raw meat smell as if I just opened a package of pork chops in my own kitchen.

The meatpacking plants that enable American consumers to find cheap hamburger and chicken wings in the grocery store are among the most dangerous places to work in the country. Federal regulators and meat companies agree more must be done to make slaughterhouses safer, and while there are signs the industry is stepping up its efforts, danger remains.

The rate of meatpacking workers who lose time or change jobs because they’re injured is 70 percent higher than the average for manufacturing workers overall, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

File Photo / Stephanie Paige Ogburn/KUNC

Hundreds of thousands of people go to work each day preparing the beef, pork and poultry that ends up on our dinner tables. Their workplace is among the most dangerous in the United States.

The nights were often worse for Gabriel, even after long days working on the production line at a pork slaughterhouse in Nebraska.

He had nightmares that the line – what the workers call “the chain” – was moving so fast, that instead of gutted hogs flying by, there were people.

“You’ve been working there for three hours, four hours, and you’re working so fast and you see the pigs going faster, faster,” he says. 

On the worst day of Greta Horner’s life, she was dressed in a burlap robe, waiting by the window for her husband to come home from work.

The couple was down to one car. The other one was in the shop. She donned the costume for a play, set in Old Jerusalem, later that morning, part of Vacation Bible School at the church. She just needed the car to get there. 

Joe McMullen / Harvest Public Media

Meatpacking workers call it “the chain.” Sometimes “the line,” or “la linea.” It sets the pace for all work done at meat processing plants, production rates that force workers to make in the tens of thousands of cuts, slices and other movements for hours at a time.

Those repetitions affect workers’ muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves, causing what is called musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, and resulting in sprains, strains, pains, or inflammation. 

A slaughterhouse is a safer place to work than it used to be, but data gathered by federal regulators doesn’t capture all the risks faced by meat and poultry workers, according to a new government report.