Slaughterhouses Keep Churning Out Meat, but Workers are Often Injured in the Process

Workers in slaughterhouses face hard and relentless work. According to statistics, the meatpacking industry is one of the most dangerous industries. The stats reveal that it has the highest injury rate of any industry, including five times the national average of serious injuries. Because of the risk of a devastating injury to workers in the meatpacking industry, one would think that responsible employers would do everything they can do ensure that their employees are safe while they are working. That, however, has not proven to be the case.

Eric Schlosser reported back in 2001 that the meatpacking industry is notorious for discouraging injured workers from filing claims and seeking proper medical treatment. In an exclusive exposé on the ways that meat companies treat their employees, Schlosser told the story of Kenny Dobbins who worked for a subsidiary of ConAgra, the Montfort Beef Company. After spending two decades as a loyal employee, experiencing countless work-related injuries and continuing to work there, one day he suffered a heart attack on the job and was permanently disabled. As he was at home recovering and waiting to be compensated for his injuries, Montfort Beef Company fired him. Later, they agreed that a $35,000 settlement was sufficient for his 20-plus years of dedicated service. Now, Dobbins lives on a fixed income, with barely enough money to meet his monthly expenses.

Dobbins's story is just one of many sad cases in the meatpacking industry, showing that the major companies seem to value their bottom line over the safety and security of their employees. The company's profits are determined by how much meat is processed on a given day. That amount is determined by the rate or speed of the production line. Schlosser reports, "Once a plant is fully staffed and running, the more head of cattle slaughtered per hour, the less it costs to process each one. If the production line stops, for any reason, costs go up. Faster means cheaper--and more profitable." Obviously, the faster the chain runs, the more employees are at risk of injuries.

Several factors work to the advantage of the meatpacking employers. The demographics of the industry have changed over the years. It is now staffed mostly by migrant workers who do not speak English as a first language. Many may be in the country illegally and therefore they do not want to bring attention to their situation by complaining about unsafe working conditions. As a result, the employer can be fairly confident that an injured worker will not report his or her injury if the company actively discourages him or her from doing so.

Workers' compensation laws were enacted for just this kind of problem, to make sure that when an employee was injured on the job, they could receive adequate medical treatment, income during the recovery process and disability payments if necessary. However, recent reforms to workers' compensation laws have made it difficult for injured employees to receive these intended benefits. In Texas, the hub of the meatpacking industry, private companies are not required to participate in the workers' compensation program and injured employees are presented with a waiver to sign that waives the right to sue the company for any injuries. The employee can refuse to sign the waiver, which may result in the loss of employment and no access to proper medical care. The situation presents a Catch-22 for most employees. Workers in the meatpacking industry all over the country may potentially face this dilemma, while employers in the industry sit back and rake in the cash.

"The Chain Never Stops," by Eric Schlosser, published by

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