The Psychological Toll of the Slaughterhouse

Note: this post contains graphic descriptions of slaughterhouse work.

Adam Smith, commenting on the early problems of the Industrial Revolution, famously wondered what happens to a person who spends most of his waking hours making the heads of pins. His thesis was that such dreary, repetitive labor improves productivity, but dulls the mind. I wonder what happens to a person who spends most of his waking hours removing the heads of animals. There must be some psychological price to be paid for this line of work.

Slaughterhouse designers are actually pioneers of division of labor. Henry Ford is credited with the invention of the assembly line, but his inspiration came from Chicago slaughterhouses. The same techniques he would use were applied to a different end—not assembly, but disassembly. He gives explicit credit in his autobiography: “The idea came in a general way from the overhead trolley that the Chicago packers use in dressing beef.” Treating animals like factory equipment has had enormous consequences for the animals and the workers. This system combines the danger and drudgery of high-speed industrial labor with cruelty that goes beyond our worst nightmares.

To be a slaughterhouse worker must be one of the most undesirable jobs on the planet. Workers seem to agree. In her seminal exposé, Slaughterhouse, Gail Eisnitz writes that “according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents thousands of slaughterhouse employees, the worker turnover rate in high-speed plants approached 100 percent per year.” It’s hard to wonder why once you know the details.

In Slaughterhouse, Eisnitz compiles her remarkable interviews with current and former slaughterhouse workers. Originally published in 1997, the book remains relevant, in part because it captures the qualitative experience of life as a slaughterhouse worker like no other book. She allows the men and woman working these jobs to speak for themselves. You might think that they would be reluctant to talk about their work, but many seemed desperate to confess what they’ve seen and what they’ve done, perhaps as therapy, penance, or both. All the following quotes from slaughterhouse workers come from the book.

The subsequent work of Temple Grandin and fast food companies(!), responding to pressure from animal rights groups, has done a lot since 1997. Unfortunately, animals are still subject to many of the same abuses. This information is kept closely guarded, but undercover videos consistently expose rampant animal abuse, conscious animals proceeding down the kill line, and unsanitary conditions.

This is a systemic problem. The profit motive has misaligned incentives to such a degree that any company that even tries to be ethical would be quickly run out of business. Slower lines mean lost profits. The problem is bigger than cruel workers, crooked plant managers or apathetic inspectors. The problem is high-speed industrial slaughter itself. Mass production techniques, by their very nature, are not kind to animals and not kind to workers. If you’re killing 1,600 cattle in a shift, even the legally permissible 95% stun rate leaves dozens of animals consciously experiencing slaughter each day. This is dangerous, cruel and psychologically scarring. Animal cruelty and psychological harm to workers are two sides of the same coin. My point is not that animal slaughter itself is necessarily psychologically scarring; my point is that animal cruelty is psychologically scarring.

Many workers have been quite vocal about the anger and disgust they feel as animals suffer unnecessarily. Their opposition to modern slaughterhouses isn’t built on squeamishness about guts and blood. “See, I’m an ex-Marine,” Ken Burdette explains. “The blood and guts don’t bother me. It’s the inhumane treatment. There’s just so much of it…I’ve gotten so mad some days I’d go and pound on the wall because they won’t do anything about it.”

Other workers give detailed support to Burdette’s statements. “I’ve seen live animals shackled, hoisted, stuck, and skinned. Too many to count. Too many to remember,” explained an official with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union local in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “It’s just a process that’s continuously there. I’ve seen shackled beef looking around before they’ve been stuck [i.e. had their throats slit]. I’ve seen hogs [that are supposed to be lying down] on the bleeding conveyor get up after they’ve been stuck. I’ve seen hogs in the scalding tank trying to swim.

Animal abuse is so common that workers who’ve been in the industry for years get into a state of apathy about it. After a while it doesn’t seem unusual anymore.”

This has consequences on the lives of workers. Donny Tice, an employee at Morrell Slaughterhouse in Sioux City, Iowa, has a typical story. “I’ve taken out my job pressure and frustration on the animals, on my wife—who I almost lost—and on myself, with heavy drinking.”

Industry vet Ed Van Winkle, echoes the point about drinking. “A lot of [slaughterhouse workers] have problems with alcohol. They have to drink, they have no other way of dealing with killing live, kicking animals all day long. If you stop and think about it, you’re killing several thousand beings a day.”

Marital troubles are common. The men describe a spectrum from being short-tempered with the family, all the way to domestic abuse. Divorce and separation are common. “The worst part, even worse than my accident, was what happened to my family life.” Sticker Tommy Vladak describes being argumentative and unpleasant to his family, eventually culminating in physical abuse. This led to a separation from his wife and children. Vladak is one of the lucky ones that was able to leave the slaughterhouse and recover his family life.

The violence of the slaughterhouse spills over beyond the domestic household. The workers describe aggressive impulses and bar fights as commonplace. These anecdotal reports are backed up by data. A 2009 academic paper found “that slaughterhouse employment increases total arrest rates, arrests for violent crimes, arrests for rape, and arrests for other sex offenses in comparison with other industries” (Fitzgerald, Kalof & Dietz). There is a promising hypothesis that there could be “spillover,” from the violence within the slaughterhouse to the surrounding community. There is a classic problem of determining if violent people are attracted to work in a slaughterhouse, or if slaughterhouses turn normal people violent, but in either case, this data is problematic for the meat industry. Based on my reading of much of the testimony, this work seems to gradually rob employees of empathy and sensitivity.

Tice explains that “another thing that happens is that you don’t care about people’s pain anymore. I used to be very sensitive about people’s problems—willing to listen. After a while you become desensitized.”

This is unsurprising considering what these workers experience. Here’s a story from Van Winkle: “You may look a hog in the eye that’s walking around down in the blood pit with you and think ‘God, that really isn’t a bad-looking animal. You may want to pet it. 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.”

And another from Vladak: “There was one night I’ll never forget as long as I live. A little female hog was coming through the chutes. She got away and the supervisor said, ‘Stick that bitch!’ I grabbed her and flipped her over. She looked up at me. It was like she was saying, “Yeah, I know it’s your job, do it.’ That was the first time I ever looked into a live hog’s eyes. And I stuck her.”

Ask yourself what kind of person you’d be after having an experience like that. It’s a fair question considering that we indirectly pay people to do this job every time we order pork chops.

It’s controversial to say that all slaughtering of animals damages mental health and overall well-being. What should be uncontroversial, and what I’m arguing, is that unnecessary cruelty is damaging to mental health and relationships. To work in a modern, high-speed slaughterhouse is to be exposed to conditions I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Confronting the ethics of this system isn’t pleasant, but it doesn’t go away because we fail to think about it. On the contrary, this system depends on the public’s ignorance. It’s painful and unpleasant to bear witness to the suffering of animals, and its effects on workers, but reckoning with that suffering is necessary for any society that wants to eat meat.

Works Cited

Eisnitz, Gail. Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry. 1997. Prometheus Books. Amherst, New York. E-book.

Fitzgerald, AJ, Kalof, L & Dietz, T 2009, ‘Slaughterhouses and increased crime rates: An empirical analysis of the spillover from “The Jungle” into the surrounding community’ Organization and Environment, vol 22, no. 2, pp. 158-184. DOI: 10.1177/1086026609338164

Ford, Henry & Crowther, Samuel (1922). My Life and Work. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing. Online.

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