"The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll ... Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them..." — Ed Van Winkle, slaughterhouse worker.
Our society values kindness to animals. We teach our children to be gentle, and most people are instinctively moved to help an animal in distress.
But at the same time, nine out of ten Australians eat animals, who are generally raised and slaughtered in secrecy — and left exposed by cruelty laws. Cows become 'beef', pigs become 'pork', and when we stand at the supermarket chiller, the suffering of those sensitive animals remains well hidden.
What about the people forced to live out this contradiction? Common sense — and a growing body of scientific evidence — explains that working in a slaughterhouse can have an immense emotional and psychological impact, with serious consequences for these workers, their communities — and the animals whose final moments they participate in.
Workers in slaughterhouses internationally have been found to endure serious health and safety risks, especially those related to heavy lifting, repetitive motions and proximity to dangerous equipment.
Common injuries range from conditions like tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, to life-threatening injuries, often caused by the deadly combination of long hours, tiring work, and making thousands of cuts each shift with sharp knives designed to easily slice through bone.
"Meatpacking is the most dangerous factory job in America." — Human Rights Watch.
Pressure to keep up with the relentless pace of slaughter and 'processing' forces most workers to employ a range of coping mechanisms to deal with their natural aversion to the suffering of the cow, pig or lamb in front of them. They have to distance themselves mentally, and see these animals simply as 'units of production' — creating a situation explosively primed for the type of abattoir abuse we tragically see all too often.
"Sometimes the power, angle or location of the steel bolt is insufficient to render the cow unconscious, and it will bleed profusely and thrash about wildly while the knocker tries to shoot it again...
By the end of the day, by liver number 2,394 or foot number 9,576, it hardly matters what is being cut, shorn, sliced, shredded, hung, or washed: all that matters is that the day is once again, finally, coming to a close..." — Assistant Professor Timothy Pachirat, who worked undercover for several months in a US cattle abattoir.
It's perhaps not surprising that an Australian study found the aggression levels of slaughterhouse workers were "so high they're similar to the scores… for incarcerated populations".
Internationally, the local presence of an abattoir has been linked to higher rates of violent crime within communities. Experts found evidence suggesting that participating in the routine slaughter of animals can increase a worker's propensity for committing a range of violent offences against people.
When killing animals has largely become the responsibility of a small group of people under great strain, we need to find solutions — for animals and ourselves.
What you can do to help
- Factory-style slaughterhouses exist because of demand for meat and lots of it. Reducing this demand is a crucial part of ending slaughterhouse cruelty. Discover how you can be healthy, happy and meat-free.
- Make sure the abuse of animals in abattoirs doesn't remain hidden. Demand CCTV in all Australian slaughterhouses.
- Have you ever wondered how you came by your views about animals? Enjoy this illuminating talk by Dr Melanie Joy.
Dillard J 2007, A Slaughterhouse Nightmare: Psychological Harm Suffered by Slaughterhouse Employees and the Possibility of Redress through Legal Reform, Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy
Human Rights Watch 2005, Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants
Pachirat T 2011, Every twelve seconds: industrialized slaughter and the politics of sight, Yale University Press
Richards E, Signal T & Taylor, N 2013, A Different Cut? Comparing Attitudes toward Animals and Propensity for Aggression within Two Primary Industry Cohorts—Farmers and Meatworkers, Society & Animals, Volume 21, Issue 4, pages 395 – 413
Fitzgerald A, Kalof L & Dietz T 2009, Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates: An Empirical Analysis of the Spillover From 'The Jungle' Into the Surrounding Community, Organization & Environment, vol. 22 no. 2, 158-184
Title image: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals