The Forgotten Casualties of Meat – Slaughterhouse workers

There’s at least 150,000 of them in America alone. Many authorities consider them to have the worst job in America and few can stand to stick at this job for more than a year. They suffer badly, both physically and emotionally, and by many measures they have the most dangerous job in America. Almost no one speaks up for them. Even fewer stand up for them. They’re slaughterhouse workers. While there’s been much written and talked about regarding the plight of animals in the slaughterhouse, little has been said about the workers. What about them? We thought we would give you a brief report on these forgotten casualties of the meat industry. While many consider that they are part of the problems caused by meat, we recognize that, in a way, they are its victims as well.

Our story begins about a hundred years ago with the publishing of the powerful expose, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. In reading about the abuse of both animal and worker alike, not to mention the filth and contamination, the public was outraged and President Theodore Roosevelt was moved to take action.

At first it was mostly the sanitation which saw the most improvement, but by the 1940’s and 50’s worker conditions began to rapidly improve, and by the 1960’s the workers had better pay and working conditions.

But during the 1970’s things began to unravel. The speed of the slaughter and processing lines were greatly sped up, resulting in a huge increase in serious injuries and psychological stress. Worker pay started to decline as well, and union membership and influence were greatly diminished. The current situation is really bad and entails some of the most abusive working circumstances imaginable.

The rate of worker injury is now triple that of other manufacturing and processing jobs. Slaughterhouse worker injuries run the gamut of everything from repetitive motion injuries, to serious cuts and amputations, to a high incidence of certain cancers and autoimmune diseases that are strongly associated with handling meat. Human Rights Watch concludes that slaughterhouse workers have the most dangerous job in America, and even the US Government Accountable Office (USGAO) says that they face much greater risks than other workers. The problem of worker safety may be even worse than the statistics show as under-reporting is often rampant. Indeed a congressional investigation found failures to report even serious injuries, requiring hospitalization or even amputation, were widespread.

One of the leading determinants of the injury rate at slaughterhouses is the speed of the disassembly line. The faster it runs the more likely a worker is to get hurt. The processing speed has been greatly increased in recent years in the drive to maximize profits and produce cheap meat. Back when The Jungle was written, a worker was expected to process about 50 cattle per hour. Twenty years ago the line was sped up to 175 an hour. Today, it’s up to almost 400 an hour. Much of the work is done with various very sharp knives and other implements with some workers making as much as 10,000 cuts in an 8 hour shift. Under these conditions, injuries of strain, serious wounds, and even some fatalities, are all but inevitable.

The risks go well beyond the physical stress and strain of the work itself and make no mistake it is grueling. They also face an increased risk of some serious diseases. For instance working with meat has been shown to increase the risk of leukemia and lymphoma. In fact the increased risk of these diseases extends from meat workers from the slaughterhouse all the way down to the supermarket butcher. There are other disease risks besides cancer that have doctors worried. One is Progressive Inflammatory Neuropathy (PIN) an autoimmune disease that results in nerve damage caused by the body’s reaction to pig brains which are processed in pork packing plants. This terrible disease causes both pain and loss of function as the nervous tissue endures damage from being attacked by the body itself.

Not to go unmentioned is the extraordinary psychological stress caused not only by the grueling work, but also from the emotional effects of being involved with killing and dismembering so many animals, often covered in their organs and tissue, and standing in their blood while doing it. There are numerous reports of high levels of drug use at meatpacking plants and new research indicates that these stressed-out workers become prone to criminal behavior in general.

University of Windsor Criminology professor Amy Fitzgerald says statistics show that the link between slaughterhouses and brutal crime is fact. In a recent study, Fitzgerald crunched numbers from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report database, census data, and arrest and offence reports from 581U.S.counties from 1994 to 2002. According to the professor, as the number of slaughterhouse workers in a community increases, the crime rate also increases. Fitzgerald controlled for factors such as the influx of new residents when slaughterhouses open, high numbers of young men — even the number of immigrants – but the data was clear. Nor could the violence be blamed on factory work itself. Fitzgerald compared slaughterhouse communities to those with comparable industries — dangerous, repetitive work that didn’t involve killing animals. These were not associated with a rise in crime at all. The numbers leave few explanations other than the slaughterhouses being somehow to blame. According to Professor Fitzgerald, “The unique thing about slaughterhouses is that the workers are not dealing with inanimate objects, but instead dealing with live animals coming in and then killing them and processing what’s left of them.”

Why do the workers put up with it? The answer is that most of them don’t for long. Employee turnover rates of 80-100% per year are common at slaughterhouses. The other part of the answer is that a large percentage of employees at slaughterhouses are undocumented aliens, who are not in a position to complain and lack the language skills and know-how to stand up for themselves. To add insult to final injury, despite the abusive working conditions, slaughterhouse workers are very poorly paid.

The labels on meat packages don’t include all the ingredients. They may list the saturated fat and cholesterol – reason enough to avoid it – but they don’t include the animal suffering, both on the factory farm and then all too often later in the slaughterhouse. Nor do the labels include the staggering amounts of environmental degradation involved in its production. We can now add to the list of missing ingredients, “made by underpaid workers who experience high rate of injury and disease.” By becoming a vegetarian, you will not only be rejecting meat products, you’ll also be rejecting all the ingredients that went into producing it.

About Vegetarians of Washington

Vegetarians of Washington is a large non-profit vegetarian society based in Seattle, WA. We encourage people to discover the advantages and experience the pleasures of vegetarian food. We welcome everyone, whether you're an experienced vegetarian, a beginner or just curious. You don't have to be a vegetarian to join our organization, or to follow our blog! We run the largest vegetarian food festival in the country, Seattle's Vegfest, held in the Seattle Center in March each year. We also host monthly dining events and give free nutrition and cooking classes. We've written several nationally published books, including our latest book "In Pursuit of Great Food: A Plant-based shopping guide", which provides valuable information on what to buy and how to choose great food. Our other books include "Say No to Meat" which gives the information and real-world advice that new vegetarians need the most, in an easy question-and-answer style, the fact-filled "The Vegetarian Solution", and a wide range of delicious recipes in "The Veg-Feasting Cookbook". All our books are available in local bookstores, and via our website or


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