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Why Does No One Care About Meatpackers?


It’s remarkable to me that basically no one cares about the lives of the people involved in producing our meat. I went into this in some detail in Out of Sight, but compared to the other issues I raised in that book, it didn’t get much attention. These are people in our nation, in factories under much concealment and often but not always away from the cities, and yet, even among liberals and the left concerned about labor and food issues, they are basically forgotten about. As I wrote in an essay in this recent issue of the Journal of Food Law and Policy, the Trump years are going to be very bad for food labor issues, but it’s not as if the Obama years were any good either–because, basically, no one cares. It’s remarkable as well, because liberals cared much more about this decades ago than they do today. I find that remarkable because today’s liberals and left are more concerned with workers of color, more concerned about food politics, more concerned about safe consumption, and more concerned with a global outlook. And yet, food workers, even in the U.S., are almost totally ignored.

In case you want to begin doing something about the condition of meatpackers in the U.S., here’s a good story on all the amputations workers suffer producing your steaks and tasteless chicken breasts.

US meat workers are already three times more likely to suffer serious injury than the average American worker, and pork and beef workers nearly seven times more likely to suffer repetitive strain injuries. And some fear that plans to remove speed restrictions on pig processing lines – currently being debated by the government – will only make the work more difficult.

Government and industry bodies point out that there have been reductions in worker injury rates over the last couple of decades, although the figures still remain higher than average. They argue that despite the lifting of speed restrictions, the need to adhere to strict rules on food safety will impose its own limit on line speeds.

Records compiled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reveal that, on average, there are at least 17 “severe” incidents a month in US meat plants. These injuries are classified as those involving “hospitalisations, amputations or loss of an eye”.

Amputations happen on average twice a week, according to the data. There were 270 incidents in a 31-month period spanning 2015 to 2017, according to the OSHA figures. Most of the incidents involved the amputation of fingers or fingertips, but there were recordings of lost hands, arms or toes. During the period there were a total of 550 serious injuries which cover 22 of the 50 states so the true total for the USA would be substantially higher.

Recorded injuries include:

An employee’s left arm had to be surgically amputated at the shoulder after it was pulled into the cubing machine during sanitation.

A worker was reaching down to pick up a box to clear a jam when his jacket became caught in a roller. As he tried to pull it out, his hand got pulled in as well. His hand and lower arm were crushed.

While an employee was attempting to remove the ribs from the spine of a cattle rib set, his hand made contact with a running vertical band saw and two of his fingers were amputated.

An employee working on a sanitation crew pushed the stop button after removing parts from the upper portion of a machine. The employee then placed his foot into a horizontal grinder while climbing down from the machine, causing all five toes on his right foot to be amputated.

A worker was clearing the hydrolyzer when back pressure caused hot feathers to discharge on to him. As he moved out of the way, he fell six feet, breaking a bone over his left eye and suffering first- and second-degree burns to the hands, arms, face and neck.

But I like bacon, so who gives a shit, right.

It does not have to be this way. Not at all. The United Packinghouse Workers of America fought to make the workplace much safer in the mid-century years. But then the Eisenhower administration actively worked with rural interests to bust those unions and move meat production into the countryside in order to lower meat costs for consumers and take political pressure off itself over rising meat prices. Customers didn’t care, so here we go. Now these jobs are largely done by immigrants, often undocumented, with no political power and fearing a return to their often dangerous countries if they complain. There are all sorts of ways to fix this–demanding stronger workplace safety regulations, a real inspection process open to all, etc. Yet, in all the great things the left is proposing over the last few years, meat production is approximately 0 on the list. That really must change. Workers are literally dying.

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