The Psychological Trauma of Slaughterhouse Workers
It’s hard to imagine Thanksgiving without Turkey or the 4th of July without barbeque, hot dogs, and hamburgers. We share many idyllic moments punctuated by good food and good company. In those moments, it’s hard to imagine what our food went through on its journey from the slaughterhouse to our table, let alone the violence that is inherent to the entire meat-packing process.
No, we’re not here to talk about animal welfare. A lot has already been said about that. Rather, we’re here to talk about meat processing plant workers’ welfare.
Although it has long been well documented, few recognize the trauma that slaughterhouse workers endure. Animals enter a slaughterhouse alive and exit as fresh meat. The details of what happens throughout that process are disturbing.
Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Minnesota and Iowa constitute the top five states with the most slaughterers and meat packers, according to BLS data. In 2003, the GAO reported that “the largest proportions of workers in the meat and poultry industry tended to be young (43 percent under age 35), male (65 percent), and/or Hispanic (42 percent).”
For the nearly 70,000 agricultural workers in this line of work, there is a heavy price to pay. The physically demanding tasks, like handling frightened animals, operating large equipment, engaging in rushed repetitive activity, navigating slippery blood-soaked floors, working in extreme temperatures, and using sharp knives, are all in a day’s work. Significant injury and illness occur regularly. “Amputations, burns and head trauma are just some of the serious injuries suffered by US meat plant workers every week,” says a joint report by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Guardian.
Slaughterhouse workers perform emotionally draining tasks, with some plants processing up to 400 cattle per day. For the slaughterer, the essence of the profession echoes elements of war. Consequently, the call of duty for these workers and combat veterans alike can be a psychological affliction. As the perpetrators of violence, the cumulative effects of killing for a living have been linked to:
- Emotional dissonance
- the propensity for aggression and violence
- Isolation and alienation
- Perpetrator-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS)
The psychological distress at work compounded by the reality of low income and limited resources can lead to maladaptive behavior. Research on the ‘spillover’ phenomena, found that “slaughterhouse employment is a significant predictor of …arrests for rape and arrests for sex offenses.”
In 2012, 137 workers at an industrial meat packing plant in Nebraska were assessed for the extensiveness of serious psychological distress. According to the report, “findings indicate that beef packing workers are an occupational population that should be targeted for mental health services, and that intervention efforts would improve the health of this workforce.”
Although there has been a decrease in injury and illness rates among slaughterhouse workers, the GAO reports that it is likely that “underreporting and inadequate data collection,” distort the actual figures. “For undocumented workers, of which there are many in the industry,” says the Drake Journal of Agricultural Law, there is a “disincentive to report problems for fear they might be deported.” There is a lot at stake for employers and employees, therefore, the fear of disrupting the flow of enterprise can suppress compliance.
As if all of the above weren’t enough, many meat-packing and processing centers have now become hot spots for the Coronavirus. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise in a work environment where employees stand shoulder to shoulder and are often pressured to work through illness. Even so, advocates say that safety precautions could have been implemented far sooner than they were. (OSHA released guidelines on April 26th, but even those are voluntary.) Meat packing plants have started shuttering rapidly, as outbreaks among their workforce spiraled out of control. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) stated in a press release that at least 20 workers died and 22 plants have closed, which “resulted in over 35,000 workers impacted and a 25 percent reduction in pork slaughter capacity as well as a 10 percent reduction in beef slaughter capacity.”
As anxiety about disruptions to the food supply began rising, Politico reported that President Trump issued an Executive Order requiring meat-packing plants to remain open. Unfortunately, while the order directed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to “take all appropriate action” to ensure that meat companies continue operating, it did nothing to recommend or in any way guarantee increased protections for the workers themselves. In fact, it was suggested that meatpacking companies would be shielded from legal liability if workers complained they were not adequately protected.
The implications are serious for America’s food workers and America’s food supply. Requiring plants to remain open without instituting measures to keep workers healthy will only result in a nightmarish scenario in which more workers get sick and die. At the same time, other workers not willing to put their lives on the line simply won’t report to work. And how can a plant remain open without its workers?
It brings us back to something we’ve known for a long time here at AFOP Health & Safety: keeping our workers safe is in everyone’s interest, not just the workers’. That’s why we’re committed – even under quarantine – to getting out the best and most timely information out to our trainers, farmworkers, and the general public about how we can best help this vulnerable workforce at such a critical time.