Published with permission from the Summer 2021 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter. The PP is funded entirely by reader subscription, available only in hard copy for $12/yr. Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244. Click here for archived issues.
by Fred Gerr
The US public’s appetite for meat is well known. More than 130 billion pounds of beef, pork, and chicken are processed in the US per year. To support this demand, the meatpacking industry employs just under one-half million workers, predominantly in the Midwest and Southeast. As is often the case with dangerous and physically demanding work, persons of color and persons born outside the US are over-represented among meatpacking workers. Many observers believe that employment of undocumented foreign workers has been a common practice in the industry.
The hazards of industrial-scale meat processing have been known for more than a century. In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote, “There are learned people who can tell you that beef-boners make forty cents an hour, but, perhaps, these people have never looked at a beef-boner’s hands” (The Jungle). In 1987, the New York Times noted that meatpacking “remains today the most hazardous industry in America.” Physical hazards experienced by these workers include forceful and repeated exertions with the hands and arms, heavy lifting, and sharp cutting tools. As a consequence, they experience chronic and disabling disorders of muscle, tendons, nerves, and joints as well as lacerations and traumatic injuries.
For those unfamiliar with meatpacking, the sheer mass of meat handled by workers may be surprising. If each worker handled just once each pound of meat produced in the US, then each worker would manipulate 339 pounds of meat per hour. Repetitive movements are also common with workers performing up to 24,000 knife cuts per day. “Live hang” workers can lift 30,000 pounds of poultry per day manually lifting chickens onto the processing line. Unsurprisingly, meatpacking workers experience high rates of injury and illness. The US Department of Labor reported that meat processing workers experienced lost work time injuries at twice the rate of other industrial workers. University studies have found rates of musculoskeletal illness and injury even higher than those reported by the DOL.
How is it possible that the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nation has such high rates of preventable injury and illness in a major industry? Isn’t OSHA supposed to protect workers from known hazards? In fact, in the late 1990s, OSHA developed a standard to reduce ergonomic hazards. The OSHA Ergonomics Program Standard was issued in 2000 “to address the significant risk of employee exposure to ergonomic risk factors” and represented an important regulatory step in the effort to prevent ergonomic injuries. However, in March 2001, President George W. Bush signed a joint resolution of Congress disapproving the Ergonomics Program Standard enacted less than five months earlier.
Given the long history of weak protection of meat processing workers from occupational injury and illness, it is no surprise that these workers are also poorly protected from new health threats. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 among meatpacking workers illustrates such failure. As of October 2020, 24% of meatpacking workers were infected with COVID-19. In comparison, 2.8% of workers in non-meat food production were infected. Two responses by the federal government to the pandemic likely contributed to its disproportionate impact among meatpacking workers. First, in April 2020, the White House issued an executive order preventing the closure of meatpacking plants (regardless of infection rate). Second, OSHA recommended, but did not require, voluntary compliance with COVID-prevention guidelines. OSHA’s limited response to COVID-19 has been criticized as ineffective. For example, after Iowa OSHA fined a meat processor less than $1000 for alleged COVID-19 related violations, the ACLU of Iowa and others filed a federal complaint against Iowa OSHA claiming that it failed to fulfill its legal obligation to protect workers during the pandemic.
While other US industries with physically demanding and hazardous working conditions (e.g., the garment industry) have moved production to developing nations with lower living standards and weaker worker protections, such off-shoring of meatpacking is not feasible. This has led some worker health advocates to conclude that US meat producers have instead imported the employment conditions of developing nations to their US facilities. Such conditions, including low wages, poor protection from termination, weak regulatory protection, and an inability to exercise worker rights has been described as precarious employment. Depending on political orientation, it may be possible to conceptualize precarious employment as a form of economic inequality, worker exploitation, or even class struggle.
All workers, including those employed precariously, are entitled to a workplace free of known health hazards. No worker should have to sacrifice their health for employment. The fact that meat processing workers are predominantly persons of color and foreign-born is another example of our failure to remedy longstanding inequality. Strategies to limit the harm caused by precarious employment include support for organized labor rights, a livable minimum wage, meaningful protection from retaliation of workers who report occupational injury or illness, ensuring that occupational safety and health regulators fulfill their legal obligations, and immigration reform to protect undocumented workers who report unsafe working conditions.
It is time to end 100 years of neglect and abuse of our meatpacking workers.
—Fred Gerr, MD, is a retired professor of occupational and environmental health who lives in rural Johnson County.