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The Many Unreported Dangers of America’s Slaughterhouses

Many injuries and illnesses sustained by meat and poultry workers go unreported.

By Madeleine Thomas


(Photo: Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images)

Slaughterhouses, which rank among the most dangerous places to work in the United States, have grown safer in recent years. But there’s still progress to be made: A new report by the Government Accountability Office reveals that many injuries and illnesses sustained by meat and poultry workers go unreported.

Rates of injury and illness among slaughterhouses and processing plants dropped between 2004 and 2013. But much of the data we rely on to track the hazards of the job may be inadequate, the report notes, citing a lack of paid sick leave at some slaughterhouses and processing plants, and efforts to keep workers’ compensation or insurance premiums low. The Department of Labor also only collects injury or illness data when the incident involves days missed from work. Poultry and meat industry workers also often underreport any illness and injuries, for fears of losing their jobs, the report found.

“Our findings raise questions about whether the federal government is doing all it can to ensure it collects the data it needs to support worker protection and workplace safety,” the authors of the report write.

Among the report’s findings:

Sanitation Workers

  • Sanitation workers, whether employed directly by a plant or contracted, have one of the most dangerous jobs in the industry, yet injuries often go unreported. “In 2013, for example, a 41-year-old sanitation worker was killed when he fell into an industrial blender at a meat plant, according to a fatality investigation report by the Oregon Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation program of the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences,” the authors write. “In 2015, according to an OSHA citation, a sanitation worker at a poultry plant lost two of his fingertips when a machine he was cleaning was mistakenly turned on. Two weeks later at the same plant, according to the same citation, a 17-year-old sanitation worker lost part of his leg when he was caught in a machine that lacked safety mechanisms.”
  • In 2005, the Government Accountability Office found that injury and illness rates sustained by contracted sanitation workers were not being included in injury logs maintained by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as contract sanitation companies are not technically considered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to be meat or poultry industry workers. “[The Department of Labor] has not taken action to improve data on sanitation workers, despite continued concerns expressed by OSHA about how sanitation work by both plant employees and contracted workers is one of the most hazardous occupations in the industry,” according to the report.

Undocumented Workers

  • Undocumented meat and poultry workers are also less likely to report injuries or illnesses, owing to language barriers, deportation fears, financial pressures, or the risk of being fired.
  • In 2014, the hourly mean wage of a meat or poultry industry worker was $12.50—or roughly $26,000 a year. For a family of four, that annual sum is barely above the federal poverty guidelines.
  • In 2015, almost 30 percent of meat and poultry workers were non-citizens, compared to 9.5 percent of manufacturing workers nationwide. “The meat and poultry industry has been a starting point for new immigrants, as many jobs require little formal education or prior experience, according to a meat industry trade association,” the report states. “According to an OSHA official, worker advocacy groups, and plant managers at one plant we visited, some employers in the meat and poultry industry recruit refugees — in part, to replace undocumented workers — and some companies hire prison labor.”

Dangers on the Job

  • Exposure to chemicals like chlorine, ammonia, or other contaminants can cause respiratory illness in workers. Yet, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, no air sampling method exists to detect levels of chlorine byproducts in slaughterhouses or processing plants.
  • Operating or cleaning machines on the slaughterhouse floor carry the risk of crushed hands, amputations, burns, or blindness, yet OSHA officials often cite a lack of machine safety features in place to prevent injury. “For example, one meat worker showed us his scarred hand and said it had been caught in a machine, which crushed his finger and removed skin, necessitating a skin graft,” the report states. “Another worker’s apron was caught in a machine, which pulled her arm in before the machine could be turned off. As a result, she told us she can no longer work or perform daily activities with that arm.”
  • It’s also challenging to know the full extent of musculoskeletal disorders — which are caused by forceful exertion or repetition, force, vibration, or awkward postures — among poultry and meat workers. Those types of injuries are often gradual and go unreported. But they can still be disabling. “A 2015 health hazard evaluation of a poultry plant by NIOSH found that over one-third of the workers who participated in the study had evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome,” the study notes.