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On Thursday, January 28th, six people were killed from a liquid nitrogen leak at a chicken plant in Gainesville, Georgia. This tragic incident immediately made national headlines, momentarily shedding light on the dangerous working conditions on factory farms and meatpacking plants in this country.
While fatal incidents like the Gainesville leak gain widespread attention and momentarily spark a conversation around working conditions on factory farms and meat processing plants, in normal times, these industries routinely subject vulnerable workers to dangerous, stressful, and exploitative working conditions.
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On Thursday morning, a nitrogen line ruptured inside a chicken processing plant owned by Foundation Food Group, a meat processing company that serves national restaurant chains all across the country. Liquid nitrogen is often used in poultry plants to chill or freeze chicken after it has been processed, but if it accidentally leaks into the air, it vaporizes into a toxic odorless gas. The air humans breathe normally contains 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen, but nitrogen gas can displace oxygen, make air unbreathable, and lead to deadly asphyxiation. In the aftermath of the nitrogen leak, six people lost their lives and eleven others were hospitalized.
While it’s unclear exactly how and why the nitrogen line burst, the plant where the accident took place was previously cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for violations four times in the past ten years. OSHA — the regulatory body charged with inspecting and examining workspaces — issued infractions against the plant for violations of eye and face protection, and for unsafe machinery that caused several finger amputations. The president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, Stuart Appelbaum, described the incident as a “complete and utter tragedy,” according to reporting by the New York Times. “Had simple safety protocols been followed today, workers’ lives wouldn’t have been on the line,” said Appelbaum, whose union represents more than 15,000 poultry workers across the southern part of the country.
Gainesville, a city fifty miles northeast of Atlanta, is the self-proclaimed poultry capital of the world, and the state of Georgia is the nation’s top chicken producer — producing more than 30 million pounds of chicken and seven million eggs every day.
Factory farms, which employ more than 700,000 workers, are unhealthy and stressful places to work. Workers are routinely exposed to air pollutants that can cause respiratory illness and frequently suffer from repetitive stress injuries and chronic pain. Repeated exposure to, and perpetration of, violence also leads many workers to suffer from mental illness. Despite the high risk of illness and injury, and long, grueling hours, on average, full-time factory farm workers make only $23,000 a year.
Factory farms take advantage of a vulnerable workforce that otherwise may have limited job prospects — the majority of farm workers come from low-income and immigrant families, and many are illiterate and do not speak any English. Approximately 72 percent of farm workers are born outside of the US, and 68 percent are born in Mexico. Only a third of factory farm workers are US citizens, and nearly half — about 48 percent — do not have legal authorization to work in this country. Employees view undocumented workers as ideal recruits for the job since, due to the threat of deportation, they are less likely to complain about low wages and dangerous working conditions. Many workers are also economic refugees who might not understand their rights and basic labor protections.
At the Gainesville plant, five of the six deceased were Latino, and some of the 130 workers evacuated from the plant avoided undergoing medical checks due to their undocumented status, according to immigration lawyer Jennifer McCall. The city of Gainesville is about 40 percent Latino, and nearly 12 percent of its population is in the country illegally, according to Pew Research Center.
Language barriers pose an additional threat to laborers suffering on the job; about 38 percent of workers do not speak any English, according to a 2009 National Agricultural Workers Survey. That means that even those who may want to fill out an application for a different job, or file a labor violation claim against a meatpacking company, may not be able to proceed. In turn, very few workplace dangers or incidents are reported.
Workers regularly inhale dangerous air pollutants that can lead to, or worsen, respiratory illness:
As a result of prolonged exposure to this poor air quality and toxic chemicals, 70 percent of farm workers experience some sort of respiratory issues.
Factory farm workers suffer injuries at extremely high rates, and chronically under report such incidents. Employees perform a wide range of tasks, including administering antibiotics, determining chicks’ gender and killing all males, transporting animals to slaughterhouses, removing dead animals from their cages, cleaning sheds, and slaughtering animals for meat. Some of these tasks are much more dangerous than others, but on average, an employee who works at a factory farm for five years has a 50 percent chance of being injured at the workplace.
Workers have described a consistent reluctance to report injuries or poor working conditions. Benjamin Reed, who hosts a Spanish radio program aimed at local agricultural workers in Idaho, said workers are extremely worried about high injury rates: “There is a consensus that the government is not doing enough, and neither are employers, in ensuring safety precautions. Some of these farms are dirty, nasty and full of flies and there are a lot of these manure ponds filled with fecal matter and urine."
Though employees under report injuries for fear of retribution, there is still substantial documentation of these incidents. In 2016, 6 percent of factory farm workers reported a work-related injury or illness, and on average, there are at least 17 “severe” incidents a month in US meat plants — injuries involving hospitalizations, amputations, or the loss of an eye. Amputations are reported, on average, twice a week; in the first nine months of 2015, Tyson alone reported an average one amputation per month.
While the meat and dairy industries have mostly stayed out of the limelight, several tragic incidents have garnered national attention. In 2007, for example, four family members working on a manure pit in Virginia famously died after being overcome by deadly methane gas that was emanating from a dairy farm. In 2017, the Washington Post covered the death of an immigrant laborer working on a dairy farm in Idaho whose worker’s tractor tipped into a pit of cow manure. Notably, the farm was only fined $5,000 for the death.
Employees also suffer from repetitive stress injuries at rates about 30 times the national average and, since thousands of animals in a confined space can be very loud, they are regularly exposed to noise levels that exceed safety thresholds.
A Human Rights Watch report in 2005 extensively investigated the hazardous work conditions and illegal tactics that companies used to crush union efforts, and interviewed workers at major companies like Tyson, Smithfield Foods, and Nebraska Beef. The report concluded that factory farming is the most dangerous job in America, and that meatpacking work systematically violated human rights.
As a result of seeing and perpetrating so much suffering and death, workers’ mental health is also negatively affected. The meat industry does everything in its power to normalize the violence that takes place on these operations, but the psychological impacts are brutal nonetheless. Slaughterhouse work has been linked to perpetration-induced traumatic stress, a form of posttraumatic stress caused by actively inflicting trauma upon others.
One slaughterhouse worker was quoted in the minutes of a Tyson foods Annual Shareholder Meeting in 2006 describing the dissociation slaughterers had to force upon themselves. “The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll,” said Ed Van Winkle, who worked on a hog farm in Sioux City, Iowa. “Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later, I had to kill them — beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.” Another man, who worked for a Tyson poultry plant for five years and later became an animal rights activist, also described the enormous psychological effects of the work. “The sheer amount of killing and blood can really get to you after a while,” Virgil Butler wrote on his blog, The Cyberactivist. “You feel like part of a big death machine… Sometimes weird thoughts will enter your head. It’s just you and the dying chickens. The surreal feelings grow into such a horror of the barbaric nature of your behaviour. You are murdering helpless birds by the thousands (75,000 to 90,000 a night). You are a killer.”
This mental toll appears to induce crime and domestic violence, as there is a strong correlation between the presence of a large slaughterhouse and high crime rates in US communities. Amy Fitzgerald, a criminology professor at the University of Windsor in Canada, compared crime rates in communities with a slaughterhouse to rates in demographically-similar communities with other factory-like operations. Fitzgerald found that the presence of a slaughterhouse was strongly correlated with a spike in crime, and that workers were essentially “desensitized” to violence.
In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, factory farms and meatpacking plants have become hotbeds for virus spread. As of February 1st, more than 85,750 factory farm and meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19. In April, one of the largest hotspots in the country was a Smithfields Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, Dakota — by September, about a third of the plant’s 4,000 person workforce had been infected. Similarly, one of the largest slaughterhouses in California, One World Beef Packers, was the site of a significant COVID-19 outbreak where symptomatic people continued to show up to work for fear of being replaced. These facilities were not exceptions, but reflective of a larger international trend: “One, two, or three meatpacking plants — fine, you might expect that. But these outbreaks are clearly a worldwide phenomenon,” said Nicholas Christakis, who studies how contagions travel through social networks at the Human Nature Lab at Yale. “To me, that’s evidence that there’s something distinctive about meatpacking that’s adding to people’s risks of catching Covid-19.”
It’s no shock that a virus as highly transmissible as COVID-19 has spread like wildfire in factory farms. At a packing facility, hundreds of workers might stand in prolonged close proximity to one another as carcasses whiz by on conveyor belts. Physical conditions like cold temperatures and aggressive ventilations further encourage virus spread, and socioeconomic factors like living in cramped quarters and relying on public transit makes workers even more susceptible to contracting the virus in the first place.
What happened in Gainesville is absolutely devastating. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on the exploitative conditions that meat workers experience. Virus spread, mental health impacts, injuries, and dangerous air pollutants plague this industry, and it’s time for a shift away from factory farming and toward a food system that minimizes suffering and harm. Ultimately, we need to improve labor regulations and enforcement, eliminate incentives and subsidies for factory farming, and invest in a systemic transformation to plant-based agriculture and diets.
Noa Dalzell is an FFAC fellow where she researches policies that will combat factory farming and incentivize a transition toward plant-based eating. She manages the State Climate Policy Network at Climate XChange, a national network of more than 11,000 advocates and policymakers working to pass climate policies in their states. She graduated from Northeastern University with an undergraduate degree in political science and international relations, and is currently pursuing her Masters in Public Administration.