The virus & the slaughterhouse

June 28, 2020

Slaughterhouse workers
Workers at a beef slaughterhouse in Corpus Christi, Texas dissect, sort and separate beef parts. Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

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The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has hit the American meat industry hard. As of 25 June, at least 25,700 people employed in meatpacking (or their friends, families, and contacts) have been diagnosed with COVID-19. By mid-May, almost half of all COVID-19 hotspots were related to meatpacking, slaughtering, and processing establishments.

In an effort to protect workers and surrounding communities, at least twenty meat processing plants closed, leading to meat shortages and led to the culling of millions of animals that could not be housed.

Protecting workers in these plants has been challenged by several government actions. On April 28, the Trump Administration released an executive order compelling beef, pork, and poultry manufacturers to remain open, employing powers under the Defense Production Act of 1950. Many states have followed suit, reopening plants despite public health concerns.

In one such example, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts overruled health officials to keep plants open, leading employees to come to work after testing positive with the virus, community hospitals to become overwhelmed, and the town to become one of the fastest growing hot spots in the country.

Some politicians have criticized the meatpacking employees themselves, with the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar placing blame on the "home and social" lives of workers, and a Smithfield Foods spokesperson blaming the employees for living in circumstances different "than they are with your traditional American family" (the company has since disavowed this position).

But that meatpacking is dangerous is nothing new. Since Upton Sinclair's publication of The Jungle in 1906, revealing the horrors of Chicago meatpacking plants, a series of regulations and standards have been implemented to improve the safety conditions of meatpackers. Yet a 2005 Government Accountability Office investigation found that although workplace injuries have declined, the meat and poultry industry continues to rank among the most dangerous sectors in the United States.

Just how dangerous is the meat industry?

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry with the highest rate of injuries and illnesses is healthcare and social assistance, an industry well-known for its high rate of injuries due to back injuries, exposure to harmful chemicals, sharps injuries, stress, and violence. The second highest rate of workplace injuries occurs in public administration, which includes police and fire firefighters who are frequently exposed to violence and dangerous environments.

However, the industry with the third highest rate of workplace injuries and illnesses is one that contains many of the meat and dairy-related occupations: Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting (5 injuries or illnesses per 100 full-time workers, totaling 54,400). Most other animal-related jobs are in the Manufacturing sector, which reported 3 injuries or illnesses per 100 workers in 2018 (430,300 total). A total of 917 people died in these two sectors.

Injuries and illnesses by sector, 2018

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (2018). Data shown are numbers of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses, non-fatal incidence rates of occupatoinal injuries and illnesses (represented by the number of injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers), and number of fatal occupational injuries.

Of course, these two sectors contain many jobs not at all related to meat and animal production, such as forestry, farming, automobile manufacturing, metal manufacturing, and more. So we further disaggregated these two sectors to see how the animal production jobs compared to everything else. (Note that for the purposes of this article, we consider as 'animal production' all jobs related to animal husbandry and animal product manufacturing, including meat and dairy production, leather and fur, and other animal raising and processing).

However, after further breaking down each of these sectors, we find that their most dangerous jobs are those related to meat, dairy, and animal product production.

Injuries and illnesses in manufacturing and agriculture, 2018

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (2018). Only sectors part of Manufacturing (NAICS 31-33) and Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (NAICS 11) are included. Data shown are numbers of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses, non-fatal incidence rates of occupatoinal injuries and illnesses (represented by the number of injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers), and number of fatal occupational injuries.

Four of the five jobs with the highest rates of non-fatal injuries and illnesses are in animal production, including other animal production (which includes raising animals other than those typically eaten as food, or combination animal farming), leather and hide tanning, hog and pig farming, and cattle ranching.

The field with the highest number of non-fatal injuries and illnesses is animal slaughtering and processing, with 23,500 people reporting an injury of illness in 2018. By contrast, the sector with the highest number of fatal injuries is cattle ranching and farming, reporting 135 deaths in 2018.

What are all these injuries and illnesses?

In general, the most common types of nonfatal injuries are sprains and tears, fractures, lacerations, bruising, and pain. For almost every type of injury, the highest rates are in the animal production sectors. Yet different jobs come with different types of risks.

Hog and pig farmers, for example, have the second highest rate of bruising and contusions of any industry, with 56.5 injuries per 10,000 full-time workers. The seafood packaging industry has the highest rate of puncture injuries of any sector (at 27.5 injuries per 10,000). The fourth and fifth highest rates of fractures are in hog farming (46.4) and cattle ranching (44.4), respectively, while cattle ranching reports the third highest rates of soreness and pain (62.1).

Less commonly reported, rates of amputations are nonetheless the ninth highest in cattle ranching jobs (4.5 per 10,000), while the animal food manufacturing sector has the second highest rate of chemical burns of any industry (7.8).

The most dangerous employers?

According to data from The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, about one-third of all COVID-19 diagnoses in meatpacking happened in Tyson Foods plants, mostly found in Iowa. Other companies that experienced large outbreaks include JBS, Smithfield Foods, and National Beef.

Are these plants uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19, or are they the same facilities with high rates of occupational injuries? To understand which companies are the most unsafe, we used data from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which sends hygienists and safety professionals to worksites across the United States to evaluate compliance with safety regulations. These inspections are normally without advance notice, and can be instigated due to a reportable injury or illness, worker complaints, or referrals from other government agencies.

Among animal slaughtering and processing establishments, we find that Tyson Foods, JBS, Smithfield, and National Beef account for more than 10% of all health and safety violations identified by OSHA. The same companies account for nearly 15% of all penalties and fines paid for violations. Iowa accounts for the second highest number of violations (after California) and the sixth highest amount of penalties.

Workplace safety violations in the animal sectors (2015 - 2019)

Source: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), U.S. Department of Labor. Size of circle represents total violations per ZIP code, while text indicates the establishment with the most violations. Some penalties may still be pending. Downloaded 19 May, 2020. The dataset consists of inspection case detail for OSHA inspections. Animals sectors include the following North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) industry codes: 1121 (Cattle Ranching and Farming), 1122 (Hog and pig farming), 1123 (Poultry and egg production), 1124 (Sheep and Goat Farming), 1125 (Aquaculture), 1129 (Other Animal Production), 1142 (Hunting and Trapping), 1152 (Support Activities for Animal Production), 3111 (Animal food manufacturing), 3115 (Dairy Product Manufacturing), 3116 (Animal slaughtering and processing), 3117 (Seafood Product Preparation and Packaging), and 3161 (Leather and Hide Tanning and Finishing).

However, health and safety violations are widespread, impacting facilities across the country and in many animal sectors. Indeed, the largest penalties observed in the last five years were paid by Andersen Dairy, Inc, a milk and dairy product company based in Washington. The largest number of serious violations occurred in the Alaska Longline, LLC, an Alaska-based seafood product company. And although most violations occurred in California, Iowa, Georgia, and Texas, violations were reported in 48 states from 2015-2019.

In OSHA inspections, health and safety violations that are serious, willful, or repeated receive the highest penalties. We find that Case Farms Processing, Inc, Trident Seafood Corporation, Pacific Seafood, and Tyson Foods accounted for 28% of all repeat violations. Andersen Dairy, Inc, was fined for twenty-six violations considered to be willful, a type of violation in which "the employer either knowingly failed to comply with a legal requirement (purposeful disregard) or acted with plain indifference to employee safety."

Keeping workers safe

Under normal circumstances the animal producing industries are dangerous for many reasons — these types of jobs ask workers to perform repetitive motions, using dangerous machines, and around large animals. In addition to the normal risks of this type of employment, these workers are made particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of COVID-19 due to thelong hours and crowded conditions of the industry.

The dangers of the animal production sectors (as in much of the food producing industry) are skewed along demographic lines: In slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants, at least 29% of non-fatal injuries were among Hispanic workers and 19% were among Black or African-American workers. In cattle ranching, 41% of injuries were among Hispanic workers. In seafood processing, this figure is 36%.

Since as long as industrial farming has existed in the United States, these jobs have commonly been held by recent immigrants. Since the 1990s, in part to undermine the high pay and unionization of American workers, corporations have conducted recruitment efforts to bring immigrants from Mexico and Central America to meat-packing towns. Many of these immigrants are not documented.

Although rates of occupational injuries in meatpacking plants have dropped in the last twenty years, as many as two-thirds of all injuries in these plants are not recorded. Underreporting is due in part to falsified data, encouraging workers to work while injured, and discouraging workers from reporting injuries. For undocumented workers, reporting injuries can lead to employers reporting them to government officials.

We may never know the true rate of injuries in the animal sectors. It is certain, however, that the COVID-19 outbreaks in these facilities are not an isolated incident: they are just one more risk faced by those who work in America's most dangerous jobs.

Want to see for yourself? All our data are on GitHub.

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