The Human Toll of Meat Packing

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on October 9, 2009

In visits to the communities around six Swift meat packing communities for a CIS report published earlier this year, I was struck at how often I heard workers and former workers use similar language to express their bitterness about safety conditions. They would say, "This plant doesn’t just kill animals. It kills people, too."

Now comes a report from Nebraska Appleseed, a non-profit legal organization, on the results of its survey of 455 workers in five meat-packing communities across the state.

Nebraska leads the nation in red-meat production. Last year, according to the Grand Island Independent, the state's plants processed 7.4 billion pounds of red meat, slaughtering 7.9 million hogs and 7.1 million cattle.

The report is titled "The Speed Kills You: The Voice of Nebraska's Meatpacking Workers." It did not name the plants that employ the surveyed workers. Here are some of its main findings:

* Speed of work -- including line speed and an adequate number of staff on the line -- was the biggest concern among workers surveyed and the most common issue cited in responses to open-ended questions. Seventy-three percent of workers surveyed stated that the speed of the line had increased in the past year.

* Sixty-two percent of workers said they had been injured in the past year. This is far higher than the officially reported rate.

* Almost ten years after the establishment of Nebraska's Meatpacking Industry Workers Bill of Rights, many workers still describe crippling line speed, supervisory abuse, persistently high injury rates, and not being allowed to go to the bathroom. Many written responses (from workers) reported on supervisors screaming, employers' apparent indifference to safety concerns, and a failure to treat workers as human beings: "They scream at you, they humiliate you," said one worker. Said another, "I know of three people who urinated and pooped in their pants and afterwards they just laugh at you."

* Many workers did not view repetitive motion injuries as "injuries," perhaps because they are less obvious than cut injuries, and the crippling impact accrues slowly over time. Many who reported that they had not been injured in the past year then went on to describe pain and missed work from joint/repetitive motion problems.

Here is a finding that suggests the need for an investigation into the plants' practices as they hire their mostly immigrant workforce: Seven percent of workers said they had to pay to obtain an interview for prospective employment.