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The human toll of a Memorial Day barbecue

Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
Feeding the US is one of the most dangerous jobs.
  • Chase Purdy
By Chase Purdy

Food Reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The people who process and package meats are working some of the most dangerous jobs in American manufacturing.

Just as Americans head into barbecue season, newly-released data show that illness and injury rates of workers in red meat and poultry processing facilities outpace the average across all manufacturing jobs, even as such jobs become safer over time. The number of injuries and illnesses happening in the meat processing sector is also likely higher than reported, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

Slippery floors, high-speed repetitive tasks, chemical exposure and dangerous equipment are just a few of the things nearly 526,000 US meatpacking employees must contend with daily, in the more than 5,300 meat and poultry plants sprinkled across the country.

The injuries that forced most people to miss work fall under the category of “traumatic injuries” and include sprains, strains and tears. The most frequent injuries were from overexertion when lifting and repetitive motion was involved, according to the report.

The Government Accountability Office is recommending that the US Department of Labor make changes to better track workplace injuries in meatpacking plants. It believes the true number is underreported, both because employers worry about the potential costs associated with reporting workplace injuries, and because employees are fearful of losing their jobs.

“Some meat and poultry workers may be less likely to report injuries and illnesses because of their vulnerable status as undocumented or foreign-born workers,” the report states. “About 28.7% of meat and poultry workers were foreign-born non-citizens in 2015 compared, to about 9.5% of all manufacturing workers.”

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