One meatpacking worker I interviewed cried telling me how an industrial bag sealer seared away the flesh from her fingers. Another got emotional telling me about her supervisor’s constant screaming and the stress of keeping up. One told me that when she is on the line trimming chicken wings, she is terrified of breaking the cardinal rule that workers from meat and poultry slaughtering and processing plants across the United States shared with me: Don’t stop the line. 

Over the past year, I interviewed current and former workers from chicken, hog and cattle slaughtering and processing plants in Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina and Tennessee. The interviews were part of an investigation into the conditions for the hundreds of thousands of women and men who kill, cut, debone and package American-grown meat.

It's risky work and getting riskier

These workers suffer some of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness in the country. We found workers at risk of serious, potentially life-threatening injury. Some told me they are pushed by supervisor insults and humiliation to work beyond their physical and mental limits to keep the line moving. Most told me the speed of the work is what makes their job dangerous.

The Trump administration threatens to make these already dangerous conditions worse by weakening oversight of the industry and lifting limits on slaughter line speeds.

Animal slaughtering and processing is inherently difficult work, in environments full of dangers. Moving machine parts can cause traumatic injuries by crushing, amputating, burning and slicing. The tools of the trade — knives, hooks, scissors and saws, among others — can cut, stab and infect. The cumulative trauma of repeating the same, forceful motions tens of thousands of times each day can cause severe and disabling injuries.   

 

According to severe injury data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), between 2015 and 2018, a worker in the industry lost a body part or was sent to the hospital for in-patient treatment about every other day. Each year between 2013 and 2017, eight workers in the industry died, on average, because of an incident at their plant. Disabling musculoskeletal disorders were alarmingly common among the workers who talked with me. Almost all of them said their lives revolved around managing chronic pain.

The buck has to stop somewhere

Despite these conditions, the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which oversees food safety in slaughterhouses, is rolling back regulations on slaughter line speeds. It’s expanding the number of poultry companies that can increase the speed at which they slaughter chickens beyond existing limits. This week, it enacted a rule that will completely eliminate caps on slaughter line speeds for pork producers operating under a new slaughter inspection system. The facilities that use this new system will produce 90% of the pork consumed in the United States. It has been reported that similar speed limit increases in cattle plants are next.

FSIS has been reluctant to take responsibility for the impact on workers that these policies will have. I met with the acting head of FSIS, Dr. Mindy Brashears, to talk about the experiences that workers shared with me and the concerns that they and workers’ rights advocates have about these policies. In short, she reiterated what FSIS has consistently said about the impact of their policies on workers: That’s not our job. 

FSIS argues that it doesn’t have jurisdiction to regulate conditions for workers. But it doesn’t have to impose any new regulations that could make conditions in the industry even worse.

OSHA, not FSIS, is the agency charged with overseeing U.S. workplace safety. But it has long failed to put standards in place to regulate practices and conditions that put workers at risk in the meat and poultry industry. In 2015, the agency denied a petition from a coalition of concerned organizations to regulate work speeds in a manner that would protect workers’ safety and health. It cited a lack of resources for conducting the necessary rulemaking effort. One study found that it takes OSHA, on average, more than seven years to research and promulgate standards for an industry. 

But under the current administration, OSHA has even less capacity to promulgate new rules that would protect workers, to enforce existing regulations and to ensure that employers are accurately reporting information about workers injuries. OSHA now has the fewest inspectors in its history. And OSHA’s budget for setting new safety and health standards is lower than it was when it denied that work speed petition for lack of resources. It was slashed soon after Trump took office in the 2017 omnibus spending bill, and it hasn’t risen since. OSHA did not respond to our requests to comment on our findings and clarify our questions. 

Congress should equip OSHA to do a lot more to improve conditions for meatpacking workers, but that should not exempt FSIS from doing what it can now to decrease risks to workers. Line speed increases can put workers’ safety and health at risk. The United States has an obligation not to place workers at greater risk and it should not deal away these responsibilities under the guise of FSIS’ food safety mandate. FSIS should revoke its line speed waivers for poultry plants and withdraw the Modernization of Swine Slaughter rule. Workers shouldn’t have to live in fear of serious injury or death to do their jobs.