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Meat processing often dangerous in a secretive industry

Working conditions in the meat industry can be dangerous and workers suffer many more injuries and illnesses than workers in many other fields. Also, journalists and even government agencies have found it difficult to gather information they believe the public deserves about the industry’s treatment of its workers.

This situation might surprise some Americans. A 1906 novel about the meat industry may still be the most important investigative journalism in history and is still read in many schools. The Jungle shocked America with details of immigrant workers in dangerous and disgusting working conditions in Chicago’s animal slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.

After 113 years, meat processing is still unusually dangerous, and information about the industry is still unusually secretive.

Workers not encouraged to speak up

Federal agencies including the General Accounting Office (GAO) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) keep an eye on working conditions, including in the meat industry. During a detailed investigation, the GAO sometimes found actual conditions did not match the data provided by the industry.

Workers in the plants are often immigrants or refugees forced to escape the country of their birth, much like in 1905 when The Jungle was written. Fear of being fired or even deported sometimes keep workers from reporting injuries or admitting how serious they are. Safety training are sometimes given in English only.

Injuries suffered by workers who, technically, had been hired by third-party contractors are sometimes not reported to the government. Examples even included workers who had lost fingers, arms or legs while cleaning dangerous machines.

Some meat plants have their own medical clinics, and these sometimes tell workers to return to work without proper treatment. The GAO noted one worker who reported pain 90 separate times before finally being sent to a doctor.

Even giving the obstacles to reporting the facts, the official Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show health problems among meat packing workers at a rate well over twice the national average. Serious injuries causing lost days of work are 3 times more common than in American industries in general.

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