For those following the longstanding problems of high injury rates and relentless work speeds in meat and poultry processing, this may sound familiar. An important new article from The Nation, “Americans Are Working So Hard It’s Actually Killing People,” outlines how “the jobless recovery means massive speedups for many workers you depend on.”
In industries as varied as nursing, meatpacking, steelwork, and trucking, author Esther Kaplan points out a common trend: increased pace of work, increased workload, and understaffing. An ER nurse of 33 years describes covering increasing numbers of critical-care patients — from two patients in years past to to “five patients, six patients, seven patients.” A meatpacking worker describes the number of people at his station dropping from eight to six or seven “while the parts kept coming.”
Production levels and worker productivity continue to rise every year. In other words, says Kaplan, “The jobless recovery…is sustained in part by aggressively overworking those with jobs.” The result is a “growing army of shattered or broken workers.”
And the costs, Kaplan notes, extend to all of us in the form of medical errors by exhausted nurses, contaminated food processed at blistering speeds too fast to check. We all absorb the new costs of doing business, “if not in broken backs and ribs and shattered sleep, then in unsafe food and roads and hospitals.”
In her examination of the meat and poultry industry, Kaplan interviewed numerous workers from Nebraska. One had..
“. . . hands so disfigured from making repetitive cuts that he could no longer work; he is now surviving on disability. He still experiences pain so intense it feels like nails are being hammered into his fingers..”
Another former meatpacking worker relayed his experience:
“Another meatpacking worker, whom I’ll call Porfirio, worked on the kill line at XL Four Star Beef (now JBS) in Omaha for twenty-seven years. When he started, he says, they killed 1,000 cattle in a ten-hour shift; now they kill 1,100 in eight and a half hours. At night, when he goes to bed, his hands hurt so much that he has trouble falling asleep; when he wakes up in the morning, he can’t move them at all. Everyone talked about popping enormous doses of Tylenol; some talked about pressure so intense it left them depressed.”
These stories are representative of the conditions in meat and poultry plants across Nebraska and the country – punishing work speeds, high injury rates, and lasting, disabling pain. Surveys of meat and poultry workers repeatedly cite the speed of work as the biggest threat to safety, which is why Nebraska Appleseed, Southern Poverty Law Center, Heartland Workers Center, and 12 other worker and civil rights organizations petitioned OSHA for work speed protections last year.
Americans used to view work speedups with suspicion, as something being taken from them, as added work performed without compensating pay. Now as injuries and so-called “accidents” mount in this culture of speed, far more than production and pay is being squeezed from the human beings who do the work and from all of us who depend upon the food, healthcare, and other products and services they provide.