In the industry of meat and poultry production, workers are an unattended sector. Last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office delivered a report on slaughterhouses‘ safety and health that has generated quite a stir.

On 2005, a previous report criticized the safety conditions of this type of workplace. However, in the most recent version, some increase in the safety level is detected. But, according to the agency itself, a lot of information is not being shared with the authorities, making this report somehow underestimate the real situation.

Workers' health and safety at slaughterhouses
The U.S. Government Accountability Office argues that there is not enough data to really understand what’s the actual workers’ safety and health situation in slaughterhouses. Credit: Vimeo

The data used for this report comes from workers that were forced to take days off due to their injuries or illnesses. Those who were treated in the workspace or transferred to another type of job were not considered.

“This report describes what is known about injuries, illnesses, and hazards in the meat and poultry industry since GAO last reported, and examines challenges gathering injury and illness data in this industry. GAO analyzed DOL data from 2004 through 2015, the most recent data available, and examined academic and government studies and evaluations on injuries and illnesses. GAO interviewed federal officials, worker advocates, industry officials, and workers, and visited six meat and poultry plants selected for a mix of species and states,” the agency stated.

Findings by the GAO

From 2004 through 2015 the index on injuries in the meat and poultry processing industry decreased about four percent. Nevertheless, the GAO still considers the slaughtering industry a very dangerous type of workplace since hazardous conditions are present at all times.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also participated in the analysis of the data and they also argued about the risky character of this industry.

More than 150 meat and poultry workers died in that period of time (2004 – 2013) by illnesses and affections linked to their work. The injury rate in this industry is higher than in most manufacturing industries.

Tasks in meat and poultry processing involve exposure to chemicals and pathogens, continuous use of machines and dangerous tools, and a considerable amount of hours exposed to harsh conditions. Musculoskeletal disorders, affections caused by  prolonged exposure to risky materials and injuries caused by mechanical machines, are very common among slaughterhouses’ workers.

GAO found that higher rates of injuries and illnesses are met in the meat industry, compared to the poultry processing industry.

However, considering the amount of data gathered and the limitations of it, the GAO says the information is not generalizable to all plants or workers.

The challenges

The agency itself identifies challenges to gather accurate data, since most injuries and illnesses remain unreported. Inadequate data collection in the workspaces is also a common problem.

Psychological conditions are also a part of the challenge in the gathering of data. In fact, there is a trend in workers to underestimate their affections and to underreport injuries, or not report them at all, for the fear of losing jobs or receiving another kind of reprisals.

On the other hand, the trend of underreporting is also among employers, as they fear potential costs to their companies. This can come in the form of considerable sanctions by federal agencies or other negative responses among their workers or customers.

There is also a huge community of workers that were not considered in the data that nourished this report, even though they work with the meat and poultry processing industry. If they work for contractors as sanitation workers they are not classified as a part of this industry. Some of these workers spend hours cleaning machinery in meat and poultry plants.

A major challenge is that meat and poultry workers are often refugees or immigrants with difficult legal conditions. For this reason, is not uncommon to find workers avoiding the data-gathering instruments in order to remain completely anonymous. Language barriers have also proved to be a problem.

Healthy workers? 

All these limitations also translate into difficulties for the health care system to provide effective medical aid to meat and poultry workers.

At some plants, there is no medical staff at all and a considerable amount of health care providers at on-site clinics are not entirely qualified to attend the workers. There is a dangerous trend in this clinics to disregard or underestimate injuries by not referring workers with severe conditions to specialized physicians.

That trend is revealing a huge problem in the industry. Workers with injuries and severe symptoms are not being treated on time, which makes the affections worse over time, ending with workers with injuries beyond repair.

The industry’s defenders

Some sectors are stating that the meat industry’s record on workers’ safety is outstanding. The North American Meat Institute considers that underreporting is not an issue in the industry since they review the injury recordkeeping. Most meatpacking enterprises’ authorities consider that huge efforts are being made in order to provide a safeenvironmentiroment for their staff.

The goal is to creat machinery that can manage the hardest tasks, to automate packing plants and slaughterhouses to avoid human contact with risky activities.

On the contrary, several workers’ unions and NGOs claim against the risky enviroment in the industry. The Southern Poverty Law Center highlighted fast line speeds as a mechanism that cause motion injuries, among other activities that put people at risk. Mandatory bathroom breaks seems to be a denied benefit for the meat and poultry workers during the journey. Some subjects have even said they turned to adult diapers to deal with this situation.


A project of the United States Department of Labor published a series of guidelines for the meat packing industry, extrapolable to the entire meat and poultry processing and manufacturing industry. It aims to control the health hazards in the workspace. Its called OSHA: Occupational Safety and Health Standards.

Elements stated by this project are implementing hearing conservation programs, provide required and good quality personal protective equipment, guarding mechanisms for dangerous machinery, incorporating ventilation measures and other engineering controls to protect workers from chemical and biological hazards, implementing communication methods, implementing ergonomics program and stablishing quality health and sanitary facilities.

OSHA standards also described the basic requirements of plants and facilities in order to make a safe work environment.

Source: GAO