“Come to the plant and you will see”: Meatpacking Workers Want You to Know About Unsafe Conditions

Last week we released a major study of meatpacking workers’ perspectives of health and safety conditions in the industry, surveying 455 workers in one of the country’s biggest meat-producing states: “The Speed Kills You”: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers. Nebraska produces one of every four steaks and hamburgers in the country.

Official statistics already show that injury rates in meatpacking are startlingly high – double the rate of injuries in manufacturing as a whole – and a recent government study concludes that these numbers are likely failing to capture the true injury rate. So we wanted to work with workers to learn what their experience said.

As predicted by the government, workers in this survey reported even higher rates of injury than the already high government statistics. The primary concern expressed by workers was the unrelenting speed of work, which is a combination of line speed and the number of staff on the line. Making thousands of cuts per day in close quarters with electric knives in often cold conditions on slippery floors is leading to serious falls, cuts, and permanently crippling muscle and tendon injuries (for a vivid description of the effect of repetitive motion injuries, see the Charlotte Observer series “The Cruelest Cuts”). Not only the survey data, but workers’ written comments were overwhelming – bringing a flood of descriptions of physical pain and increasing work speed, as well as humiliation and verbal abuse (“They scream at you, humiliate you.” “There are people that wet their pants on the line. What safety is there in the product?” “They sell you pills and tell you that you have to learn to live with pain.” “They should treat you like human beings because I know of 3 people who urinated and pooped in their pants on the line and afterwards they laugh at you.”)

Incidence Rates Per Hundred Full-Time Employees, Non-Fatal Occupational Injuries, 2007; Source - U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Incidence Rates Per Hundred Full-Time Employees, Non-Fatal Occupational Injuries, 2007; Source - U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

After the press conference to release the report, one speaker’s comments stuck with me: “Eaters have rights, too,” she said, echoing a Catholic rural life campaign. “Eating is a moral act…and eaters have a right to know if their food is produced under safe conditions.” We all have a right to know that the food that comes to our tables was produced under safe, dignified conditions. And we can all do our part to ask a few questions to ensure that outcome.

Read the Appleseed report and recommendations

Human Rights Watch report on meat and poultry work: Blood, Sweat and Fear (2005).

Packing plant workers say pace brutal – Lincoln Journal-Star

Meatpacking workers need support – Lincoln Journal-Star Op/Ed

OSHA: Packers’ safety not ignored – Omaha World-Herald

Full Press Coverage…

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