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Meat and Poultry Processing Plants Are Incredibly Dangerous Places to Work

While the incidence of serious injuries appears to be going down statistically for America's slaughterhouse and meat processing workers, it's likely that these issues are underreported.

by Wyatt Marshall
May 30 2016, 5:00pm

As Memorial Day officially kicks off grilling season, people will be shoving meat in their faces with extra enthusiasm. Perhaps with that in mind, the United States Government Accountability Office just released its a report on workplace safety and health for workers in the meat and poultry industry.

If you were under the impression that a slaughterhouse wouldn't be the safest place to work, you would be correct.

Though rates of injury and illness are down over the period from 2004 to 2013, from 9.8 cases of illness or injury per 100 full-time workers in 2004 to 5.7 per 100 in 2013, the GAO found that rates of injury were underreported, too. CBS tuned in to a telephone press conference held by worker advocates when the report was released on Wednesday, and heard stories of worker injuries or cases where workers were fired in the aftermath of suffering an injury on the job.

One man who says that while working his hands would swell, then the pain wouldn't subside. "I saw a lot of injuries from the work speed. Twice I saw operators cut off their fingers," he said. Another worker said when he went to a doctor for a hand and shoulder injury, and his doctor told him he couldn't do the same kind of work he was doing before the injury. He said his employer in Minnesota wouldn't accept the note, refused to place him on light duty, and subsequently fired him.

READ MORE: Are the Workers Who Process America's Chicken Forced to Wear Diapers?

Meat and poultry trade groups like the National Chicken Council and the North American Meat Institute, however, said that they see the downward rate in injury as promising and indicative of new safety measures.

The GAO has been on the meat industry's case since 2005, when they found the meat and poultry industry to be one of the most dangerous in the country. They're on the lookout for injuries and illnesses "such as sprains, cuts, burns, amputations, repetitive motion injuries, and skin disorders."

About a third of workers in the meat and poultry industry are immigrants and are less likely to report an injury for fear of losing their jobs. Workers are often hired through external contractors, allowing meat processing companies to distance themselves when an issue does arise, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. "The contracting model is becoming more and more widespread through American economy, and the poultry industry is no different," said Sarah Rich, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

So the real rate of injury on the job is somewhat hazy, but the industry remains a dangerous one, where workers may suffer "musculoskeletal disorders, exposure to chemicals and pathogens, and traumatic injuries from machinery and tools."

When you polish off a rack or ribs, or six hot dogs in six minutes this summer to impress your friends, consider paying respects to everyone that made it possible for that meat to end up in your gut.

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