The Most Dangerous Job
excerpted from the book
Fast Food Nation
by Eric Schlosser
Perennial Books, 2002, paper
One night I visit a slaughterhouse somewhere in the High Plains.
The slaughterhouse is one of the nation's largest. About five
thousand head of cattle enter it every day, single file, and leave
in a different form. Someone who has access to the plant, who's
upset by its working conditions, offers to give me a tour. The
slaughterhouse is an immense building, gray and square, about
three stories high, with no windows on the front and no architectural
clues to what's happening inside. My friend gives me a chain-mail
apron and gloves, suggesting I try them on. Workers on the line
wear about eight pounds of chain mail beneath their white coats,
shiny steel armor that covers their hands, wrists, stomach, and
back. The chain mail's designed to protect workers from cutting
themselves and from being cut by other workers. But knives somehow
manage to get past it. My host hands me some Wellingtons, the
kind of knee-high rubber boots that English gentlemen wear in
the countryside. "Tuck your pants into the boots," he
says. "We'll be walking through some blood."
I put on a hardhat and climb a stairway.
The sounds get louder, factory sounds, the noise of power tools
and machinery, bursts of compressed air. We start at the end of
the line, the fabricating room. Workers call it "fab."
When we step inside, fab seems familiar: steel catwalks, pipes
along the walls, a vast room, a maze of conveyer belts. This could
be the Lamb Weston plant in Idaho, except hunks of red meat ride
the belts instead of french fries. Some machines assemble cardboard
boxes, others vacuum-seal subprimals of beef in dear plastic.
The workers look extremely busy, but there's nothing unsettling
about this part of the plant. You see meat like this all the time
in the back of your local supermarket.
The fab room is cooled to about 40 degrees,
and as you head up the line, the feel of the place starts to change.
The pieces of meat get bigger. Workers-about half of them women,
almost all of them young and Latino-slice meat with long slender
knives. They stand at a table that's chest high, grab meat off
a conveyer belt, trim away fat, throw meat back on the belt, toss
the scraps onto a conveyer belt above them, and then grab more
meat, all in a matter of seconds. I'm now struck by how many workers
there are, hundreds of them, pressed close together, constantly
moving, slicing. You see hardhats, white coats, flashes of steel.
Nobody is smiling or chatting, they're too busy, anxiously trying
not to fall behind. An old man walks past me, pushing a blue plastic
barrel filled with scraps. A few workers carve the meat with Whizzards,
small electric knives that have spinning round blades. The Whizzards
look like the Norelco razors that Santa rides in the TV ads. I
notice that a few of the women near me are sweating, even though
the place is freezing cold.
Sides of beef suspended from an overhead
trolley swing toward a group of men. Each worker has a large knife
in one hand and a steel hook in the other. They grab the meat
with their hooks and attack it fiercely with their knives. As
they hack away, using all their strength, grunting, the place
suddenly feels different, primordial. The machinery seems beside
the point, and what's going on before me has been going on for
thousands of years-the meat, the hook, the knife, men straining
to cut more meat.
On the kill floor, what I see no longer
unfolds in a logical manner. It's one strange image after another.
A worker with a power saw slices cattle into halves as though
they were two-by-fours, and then the halves swing by me into the
cooler. It feels like a slaughterhouse now. Dozens of cattle,
stripped of their skins, dangle on chains from their hind legs.
My host stops and asks how I feel, if I want to go any further.
This is where some people get sick. I feel fine, determined to
see the whole process, the world that's been deliberately hidden.
The kill floor is hot and humid. It stinks of manure. Cattle have
a body temperature of about 101 degrees, and there are a lot of
them in the room. Carcasses swing so fast along the rail that
you have to keep an eye on them constantly, dodge them, watch
your step, or one will slam you and throw you onto the bloody
concrete floor. It happens to workers all the time.
I see: a man reach inside cattle and pull
out their kidneys with his bare hands, then drop the kidneys down
a metal chute, over and over again, as each animal passes by him;
a stainless steel rack of tongues; Whizzards peeling meat off
decapitated heads, picking them almost as dean as the white skulls
painted by Georgia O'Keeffe. We wade through blood that's ankle
deep and that pours down drains into huge vats below us. As we
approach the start of the line, for the first time I hear the
steady pop, pop, pop of live animals being stunned.
Now the cattle suspended above me look
just like the cattle I've seen on ranches for years, but these
ones are upside down swinging on hooks. For a moment, the sight
seems unreal; there are so many of them, a herd of them, lifeless.
And then I see a few hind legs still kicking, a final reflex action,
and the reality comes hard and clear.
For eight and a half hours, a worker called
a "sticker" does nothing but stand in a river of blood,
being drenched in blood, slitting the neck of a steer every ten
seconds or so, severing its carotid artery. He uses a long knife
and must hit exactly the right spot to kill the animal humanely.
He hits that spot again and again. We walk up a slippery metal
stairway and reach a small platform, where the production line
begins. A man turns and smiles at me. He wears safety goggles
and a hardhat. His face is splattered with gray matter and blood.
He is the "knocker," the man who welcomes cattle to
the building. Cattle walk down a narrow chute and pause in front
of him, blocked by a gate, and then he shoots them in the head
with a captive bolt stunner-a compressed-air gun attached to the
ceiling by a long hose-which fires a steel bolt that knocks the
cattle unconscious. The animals keep strolling up, oblivious to
what comes next, and he stands over them and shoots. For eight
and a half hours, he just shoots. As I stand there, he misses
a few times and shoots the same animal twice. As soon as the steer
falls, a worker grabs one of its hind legs, shackles it to a chain,
and the chain lifts the huge animal into the air.
I watch the knocker knock cattle for a
couple of minutes. The animals are powerful and imposing one moment
and then gone in an instant, suspended from a rail, ready for
carving. A steer slips from its chain, falls to the ground, and
gets its head caught in one end of a conveyer belt. The production
line stops as workers struggle to free the steer, stunned but
alive, from the machinery. I've seen enough.
I step out of the building into the cool
night air and follow the path that leads cattle into the slaughterhouse.
They pass me, driven toward the building by workers with long
white sticks that seem to glow in the dark. One steer, perhaps
sensing instinctively what the other don't, turns and tries to
run. But workers drive him back to join the rest. The cattle lazily
walk single-file toward the muffled sounds, pop, pop, pop, coming
from the open door.
The path has hairpin turns that prevent
cattle from seeing what's in store and keep them relaxed. As the
ramp gently slopes upward, the animals may think they're headed
for another truck, another road trip -and they are, in unexpected
ways. The ramp widens as it reaches ground level and then leads
to a large cattle pen with wooden fences, a corral that belongs
in a meadow, not here. As I walk along the fence, a group of cattle
approach me, looking me straight in the eye, like dogs hoping
for a treat, and follow me out of some mysterious impulse. I stop
and try to absorb the whole scene: the cool breeze, the cattle
and their gentle lowing, a cloudless sky, steam rising from the
plant in the moonlight. And then I notice that the building does
have one window, a small square of light on the second floor.
It offers a glimpse of what's hidden behind this huge blank facade.
Through the little window you can see bright red carcasses on
hooks, going round and round.
Knocker, Sticker, Shackler, Rumper, First Legger, Knuckle Dropper,
Navel Boner, Splitter Top/Bottom Butt, Feed Kill Chain- the names
of job assignments at a modern slaughterhouse convey some of the
brutality inherent in the work. Meatpacking is now the most dangerous
job in the United States. The injury rate in a slaughterhouse
is about three times higher than the rate in a typical American
factory. Every year more than one-quarter of the meatpacking workers
in this country-roughly forty thousand men and women -suffer an
injury or a work-related illness that requires medical attention
beyond first aid. There is strong evidence that these numbers,
compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, understate the number
of meatpacking injuries that occur. Thousands of additional injuries
and illnesses most likely go unrecorded.
Despite the use of conveyer belts, forklifts,
dehiding machines, and a variety of power tools, most of the work
in the nation's slaughterhouses is still performed by hand. Poultry
plants can be largely mechanized, thanks to the breeding of chickens
that are uniform in size. The birds in some Tyson factories are
killed, plucked, gutted, beheaded, and sliced into cutlets by
robots and machines. But cattle still come in all sizes and shapes,
varying in weight by hundreds of pounds. The lack of a standardized
steer has hindered the mechanization of beef plants. In one crucial
respect meatpacking work has changed little in the past hundred
years. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, amid an era of
extraordinary technological advance, the most important tool in
a modern slaughterhouse is a sharp knife.
Lacerations are the most common injuries
suffered by meatpackers, who often stab themselves or stab someone
working nearby. Tendinitis and cumulative trauma disorders are
also quite common. Meatpacking workers routinely develop back
problems, shoulder problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, and "trigger
finger" (a syndrome in which a finger becomes frozen in a
curled position); Indeed, the rate of these cumulative trauma
injuries in the meatpacking industry is far higher than the rate
in any other American industry. It is roughly thirty-three times
higher than the national average in industry. Many slaughterhouse
workers make a knife cut every two or three seconds, which adds
up to about 10,000 cuts during an eight-hour shift. If the knife
has become dull, additional pressure is placed on the worker's
tendons, joints, and nerves. A dull knife can cause pain to extend
from the cutting hand all the way down the spine.
Workers often bring their knives home
and spend at least forty minutes a day keeping the edges smooth,
sharp, and sanded, with no pits. One IBP worker, a small Guatemalan
woman with graying hair, spoke with me in the cramped kitchen
of her mobile home. As a pot of beans cooked on the stove, she
sat in a wooden chair, gently rocking, telling the story of her
life, of her journey north in search of work, the whole time sharpening
big knives in her lap as though she were knitting a sweater.
The "IBP revolution" has been
directly responsible for many of the hazards that meatpacking
workers now face. One of the leading determinants of the injury
rate at a slaughterhouse today is the speed of the disassembly
line. The faster it runs, the more likely that workers will get
hurt. The old meatpacking plants in Chicago slaughtered about
50 cattle an hour. Twenty years ago, new plants in the High Plains
slaughtered about 175 cattle an hour. Today some plants slaughter
up to 400 cattle an hour-about half a dozen animals every minute,
sent down a single production line, carved by workers desperate
not to fall behind. While trying to keep up with the flow of meat,
workers often neglect to resharpen their knives and thereby place
more stress on their bodies. As the pace increases, so does the
risk of accidental cuts and stabbings. "I could always tell
the line speed," a former Monfort nurse told me, "by
the number of people with lacerations coming into my office."
People usually cut themselves; nevertheless, everyone on the line
tries to stay alert. Meatpackers often work within inches of each
other, wielding large knives. A simple mistake can cause a serious
injury. A former IBP worker told me about boning knives suddenly
flying out of hands and ricocheting off of machinery. "They're
very flexible," she said, "and they'll spring on you
. . . zwing, and they're gone."
Much like french fry factories, beef slaughterhouses
often operate at profit margins as low as a few pennies a pound.
The three meatpacking giants-ConAgra, IBP, and Excel-try to increase
their earnings by maximizing the volume of production at each
plant. Once a slaughterhouse is up and running, fully staffed,
the profits it will earn are directly related to the speed of
the line. A faster pace means higher profits.
Some of the most dangerous jobs in meatpacking today are performed
by the late-night cleaning crews. A large proportion of these
workers are illegal immigrants. They are considered "independent
contractors," employed not by the meatpacking firms but by
sanitation companies. They earn hourly wages that are about one-third
lower than those of regular production employees. And their work
is so hard and so horrendous that words seem inadequate to describe
it. The men and women who now dean the nation's slaughterhouses
may arguably have the worst job in the United States. "It
takes a really dedicated person," a former member of a cleaning
crew told me, "or a really desperate person to get the job
When a sanitation crew arrives at a meatpacking
plant, usually around midnight, it faces a mess of monumental
proportions. Three to four thousand cattle, each weighing about
a thousand pounds, have been slaughtered there that day. The place
has to be dean by sunrise. Some of the workers wear water-resistant
clothing; most don't. Their principal cleaning tool is a high-pressure
hose that shoots a mixture of water and chlorine heated to about
180 degrees. As the water is sprayed, the plant fills with a thick,
heavy fog. Visibility drops to as little as five feet. The conveyer
belts and machinery are running. Workers stand on the belts, spraying
them, riding them like moving sidewalks, as high as fifteen feet
off the ground. Workers climb ladders with hoses and spray the
catwalks. They get under tables and conveyer belts, climbing right
into the bloody muck, cleaning out grease, fat, manure, leftover
scraps of meat.
Glasses and safety goggles fog up. The
inside of the plant heats up; temperatures soon exceed 100 degrees.
"It's hot, and it's foggy, and you can't see anything,"
a former sanitation worker said. The crew members can't see or
hear each other when the machinery's running. They routinely spray
each other with burning hot, chemical-laden water. They are sickened
by the fumes. Jesus, a soft-spoken employee of DCS Sanitation
Management, Inc., the company that IBP uses in many of its plants,
told me that every night on the job he gets terrible headaches.
"You feel it in your head," he said. "You feel
it in your stomach, like you want to throw up." A friend
of his vomits whenever they clean the rendering area. Other workers
tease the young man as he retches. Jesus says the stench in rendering
is so powerful that it won't wash off; no matter how much soap
you use after a shift, the smell comes home with you, seeps from
One night while Jesus was cleaning, a
coworker forgot to turn off a machine, lost two fingers, and went
into shock. An ambulance came and took him away, as everyone else
continued to dean. He was back at work the following week. "If
one hand is no good," the supervisor told him, "use
the other." Another sanitation worker lost an arm in a machine.
Now he folds towels in the locker room. The scariest job, according
to Jesus, is cleaning the vents on the roof of the slaughterhouse.
The vents become clogged with grease and dried blood. In the winter,
when everything gets icy and the winds pick up, Jesus worries
that a sudden gust will blow him off the roof into the darkness.
Although official statistics are not kept,
the death rate among slaughterhouse sanitation crews is extraordinarily
high. They are the ultimate in disposable workers: illegal, illiterate,
impoverished, untrained. The nation's worst job can end in just
about the worst way. Sometimes these workers are literally ground
up and reduced to nothing
During the same years when the working conditions at America's
meatpacking plants became more dangerous-when line speeds increased
and illegal immigrants replaced skilled workers-the federal government
greatly reduced the enforcement of health and safety laws. OSHA
had long been despised by the nation's manufacturers, who considered
the agency a source of meddlesome regulations and unnecessary
red tape. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, OSHA
was already underfunded and understaffed: its 1,300 inspectors
were responsible for the safety of more than 5 million workplaces
across the country. A typical American employer could expect an
OSHA inspection about once every eighty years. Nevertheless, the
Reagan administration was determined to reduce OSHA's authority
even further, as part of the push for deregulation. The number
of OSHA inspectors was eventually cut by 20 percent, and in 1981
the agency adopted a new policy of "voluntary compliance."
Instead of arriving unannounced at a factory and performing an
inspection, OSHA employees were required to look at a company's
injury log before setting foot inside the plant. If the records
showed an injury rate at the factory lower than the national average
for all manufacturers, the OSHA inspector had to turn around and
leave at once-without entering the plant, examining its equipment,
or talking to any of its workers. These injury logs were kept
and maintained by company officials.
For most of the 1980s OSHA's relationship
with the meatpacking industry was far from adversarial. While
the number of serious injuries rose, the number of OSHA inspections
fell. The death of a worker on the job was punished with a fine
of just a few hundred dollars. At a gathering of meat company
executives in October of 1987, OSHA's safety director, Barry White,
promised to change federal safety standards that "appear
amazingly stupid to you or overburdening or just not useful."
According to an account of the meeting later published in the
Chicago Tribune, the safety director at OSHA-the federal official
most responsible for protecting the lives of meatpacking workers-
acknowledged his own lack of qualification for the job. "I
know very well that you know more about safety and health in the
meat industry than I do," White told the executives. "And
you know more about safety and health in the meat industry than
any single employee at OSHA."
OSHA's voluntary compliance policy did
indeed reduce the number of recorded injuries in meatpacking plants.
It did not, however, reduce the number of people getting hurt.
It merely encouraged companies, in the words of a subsequent congressional
investigation, "to understate injuries, to falsify records,
and to cover up accidents." At the IBP beef plant in Dakota
City, Nebraska, for example, the company kept two sets of injury
logs: one of them recording every injury and illness at the slaughterhouse,
the other provided to visiting OSHA inspectors and researchers
from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During a three-month period
in 1985, the first log recorded 1,800 injuries and illnesses at
the plant. The OSHA log recorded only 160-a discrepancy of more
than 1,000 percent.
At congressional hearings on meatpacking
in 1987, Robert L. Peterson, the chief executive of IBP, denied
under oath that two sets of logs were ever kept and called IBP's
safety record "the best of the best." Congressional
investigators later got hold of both logs-and found that the injury
rate at its Dakota City plant was as much as one-third higher
than the average rate in the meatpacking industry. Congressional
investigators also discovered that IBP had altered injury records
at its beef plant in Emporia, Kansas. Another leading meatpacking
company, John Morrell, was caught lying about injuries at its
plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The congressional investigation
concluded that these companies had failed to report "serious
injuries such as fractures, concussions, major cuts, hernias,
some requiring hospitalization, surgery, even amputation."
Congressman Tom Lantos, whose subcommittee
conducted the meatpacking inquiry, called IBP "one of the
most irresponsible and reckless corporations in America."
A Labor Department official called the company's behavior "the
worst example of underreporting injuries and illnesses to workers
ever encountered in OSHA's sixteen-year history." Nevertheless,
Robert L. Peterson was never charged with perjury for his misleading
testimony before Congress. Investigators argued that it would
be difficult to prove "conclusively" that Peterson had
"willfully" lied. In 1987 IBP was fined $2.6 million
by OSHA for underreporting injuries and later fined an additional
$3.1 million for the high rate of cumulative trauma injuries at
the Dakota City plant. After the company introduced a new safety
program there, the fines were reduced to $975,000-a sum that might
have appeared large at the time, yet represented about one one-hundredth
of a percent of IBP's annual revenues.
When a workers' comp claim involves an injury that is nearly impossible
to refute (such as an on-the-job amputation), the meatpacking
companies generally agree to pay. But when injuries are less visible
(such as those stemming from cumulative trauma) the meatpackers
often prolong the whole workers' comp process through litigation,
insisting upon hearings and filing seemingly endless appeals.
Some of the most painful and debilitating injuries are the hardest
Today it can take years for an injured
worker to receive workers' comp benefits. During that time, he
or she must pay medical bills and find a source of income. Many
rely on public assistance. The ability of meatpacking firms to
delay payment discourages many injured workers from ever filing
workers' comp claims. It leads others to accept a reduced sum
of money as part of a negotiated settlement in order to cover
medical bills. The system now leaves countless unskilled and uneducated
manual workers poorly compensated for injuries that will forever
hamper their ability to earn a living. The few who win in court
and receive full benefits are hardly set for life. Under Colorado's
new law, the payment for losing an arm is $36,000. An amputated
finger gets you anywhere from $2,200 to $4,500, depending on which
one is lost. And "serious permanent disfigurement about the
head, face, or parts of the body normally exposed to public view"
entitles you to a maximum of $2,000.
As workers' comp benefits have become
more difficult to obtain, the threat to workplace safety has grown
more serious. During the first two years of the Clinton administration,
OSHA seemed like a revitalized agency. It began to draw up the
first ergonomics standards for the nation's manufacturers, aiming
to reduce cumulative trauma disorders. The election of 1994, however,
marked a turning point. The Republican majority in Congress that
rose to power that year not only impeded the adoption of ergonomics
standards but also raised questions about the future of OSHA.
Working closely with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National
Association of Manufacturers, House Republicans have worked hard
to limit OSHA's authority. Congressman Cass Ballenger, a Republican
from North Carolina, introduced legislation that would require
OSHA to spend at least half of its budget on "consultation"
with businesses, instead of enforcement. This new budget requirement
would further reduce the number of OSHA inspections, which by
the late 1990s had already reached an all-time low. Ballenger
has long opposed OSHA inspections, despite the fact that near
his own district a fire at a poultry plant killed twenty-five
workers in 1991. The plant had never been inspected by OSHA, its
emergency exits had been chained shut, and the bodies of workers
were found in piles near the locked doors. Congressman Joel Hefley,
a Colorado Republican whose district includes Colorado Springs,
has introduced a bill that makes Ballenger's seem moderate. Hefley's
"OSHA Reform Act" would essentially repeal the Occupational
Safety and Health Act of 1970. It would forbid OSHA from conducting
any workplace inspections or imposing any fines.
During my trips to meatpacking towns in the High Plains I met
dozens of workers who'd been injured. Each of their stories was
different, yet somehow familiar, linked by common elements-the
same struggle to receive proper medical care, the same fear of
speaking out, the same underlying corporate indifference. We are
human beings, more than one person told me, but they treat us
like animals. The workers I met wanted their stories to be told.
They wanted people to know about what is happening right now.
A young woman who'd injured her back and her right hand at the
Greeley plant said to me, "I want to get on top of a rooftop
and scream my lungs out so that somebody will hear." The
voices and faces of these workers are indelibly with me, as is
the sight of their hands, the light brown skin crisscrossed with
white scars. Although I cannot tell all of their stories, a few
need to be mentioned. Like all lives, they can be used as examples
or serve as representative types. But ultimately they are unique,
individual, impossible to define or replace-the opposite of how
this system has treated them.
Raoul was born in Zapoteca, Mexico, and
did construction work in Anaheim before moving to Colorado. He
speaks no English. After hearing a Monfort ad on a Spanish-language
radio station, he applied for a job at the Greeley plant. One
day Raoul reached into a processing machine to remove a piece
of meat. The machine accidentally went on. Raoul's arm got stuck,
and it took workers twenty minutes to get it out. The machine
had to be taken apart. An ambulance brought Raoul to the hospital,
where a deep gash in his shoulder was sewn shut. A tendon had
been severed. After getting stitches and a strong prescription
painkiller, he was driven back to the slaughterhouse and put back
on the production line. Bandaged, groggy, and in pain, one arm
tied in a sling, Raoul spent the rest of the day wiping blood
off cardboard boxes with his good hand.
Renaldo was another Monfort worker who
spoke no English, an older man with graying hair. He developed
carpal tunnel syndrome while cutting meat. The injury got so bad
that sharp pain shot from his hand all the way up to his shoulder.
At night it hurt so much he could not fall asleep in bed. Instead
he would fall asleep sitting in a chair beside the bed where his
wife lay. For three years he slept in that chair every night.
Kenny Dobbins was a Monfort employee for
almost sixteen years. He was born in Keokuk, Iowa, had a tough
childhood and an abusive stepfather, left home at the age of thirteen,
went in and out of various schools, never learned to read, did
various odd jobs, and wound up at the Monfort slaughterhouse in
Grand Island, Nebraska. He started working there in 1979, right
after the company bought it from Swift. He was twenty-four. He
worked in the shipping department at first, hauling boxes that
weighed as much as 120 pounds. Kenny could handle it, though.
He was a big man, muscular and six-foot-five, and nothing in his
life had ever been easy.
One day Kenny heard someone yell, "Watch
out!" then turned around and saw a ninety-pound box falling
from an upper level of the shipping department. Kenny caught the
box with one arm, but the momentum threw him against a conveyer
belt, and the metal rim of the belt pierced his lower back. The
company doctor bandaged Kenny's back and said the pain was just
a pulled muscle. Kenny never filed for workers' comp, stayed home
for a few days, then returned to work. He had a wife and three
children to support. For the next few months, he was in terrible
pain. "It hurt so fucking bad you wouldn't believe it,"
he told me. He saw another doctor, got a second opinion. The new
doctor said Kenny had a pair of severely herniated disks. Kenny
had back surgery, spent a month in the hospital, got sent to a
pain clinic when the operation didn't work. His marriage broke
up amid the stress and financial difficulty. Fourteen months after
the injury, Kenny returned to the slaughterhouse. "GIVE UP
AFTER BACK SURGERY? NOT KEN DOBBINS!! a Monfort newsletter proclaimed.
"Ken has learned how to handle the rigors of working in a
packing plant and is trying to help others do the same. Thanks,
Ken, and keep up the good work."
Kenny felt a strong loyalty to Monfort.
He could not read, possessed few skills other than his strength,
and the company had still given him a job. When Monfort decided
to reopen its Greeley plant with a nonunion workforce, Kenny volunteered
to go there and help. He did not think highly of labor unions.
His supervisors told him that unions had been responsible for
shutting down meatpacking plants all over the country. When the
UFCW tried to organize the Greeley slaughterhouse, Kenny became
an active and outspoken member of an anti-union group.
At the Grand Island facility, Kenny had
been restricted to light duty after his injury. But his supervisor
in Greeley said that old restrictions didn't apply in this new
job. Soon Kenny was doing tough, physical labor once again, wielding
a knife and grabbing forty- to fifty-pound pieces of beef off
a table. When the pain became unbearable, he was transferred to
ground beef, then to rendering. According to a former manager
at the Greeley plant, Monfort was trying to get rid of Kenny,
trying to make his work so unpleasant that he'd quit. Kenny didn't
realize it. "He still believes in his heart that people are
honest and good," the former manager said about Kenny. "And
As part of the job in rendering, Kenny
sometimes had to climb into gigantic blood tanks and gut bins,
reach to the bottom of them with his long arms, and unclog the
drains. One day he was unexpectedly called to work over the weekend.
There had been a problem with Salmonella contamination. The plant
needed to be disinfected, and some of the maintenance workers
had refused to do it. In his street clothes, Kenny began cleaning
the place, climbing into tanks and spraying a liquid chlorine
mix. Chlorine is a hazardous chemical that can be inhaled or absorbed
through the skin, causing a litany of health problems. Workers
who spray it need to wear protective gloves, safety goggles, a
self-contained respirator, and full coveralls. Kenny's supervisor
gave him a paper dust mask to wear, but it quickly dissolved.
After eight hours of working with the chlorine in unventilated
areas, Kenny went home and fell ill. He was rushed to the hospital
and placed in an oxygen tent. His lungs had been burned by the
chemicals. His body was covered in blisters. Kenny spent a month
in the hospital.
Kenny eventually recovered from the overexposure
to chlorine, but it left his chest feeling raw, made him susceptible
to colds and sensitive to chemical aromas. He went back to work
at the Greeley plant. He had remarried, didn't know what other
kind of work to do, still felt loyal to the company. He was assigned
to an early morning shift. He had to drive an old truck from one
part of the slaughterhouse complex to another. The truck was filled
with leftover scraps of meat. The headlights and the wipers didn't
work. The windshield was filthy and cracked. One cold, dark morning
in the middle of winter, Kenny became disoriented while driving.
He stopped the truck, opened the door, got out to see where he
was-and was struck by a train. It knocked his glasses off, threw
him up in the air, and knocked both of his work boots off. The
train was moving slowly, or he would've been killed. Kenny somehow
made it back to the plant, barefoot and bleeding from deep gashes
in his back and his face. He spent two weeks at the hospital,
then went back to work.
One day, Kenny was in rendering and saw
a worker about to stick his head into a pre-breaker machine, a
device that uses hundreds of small hammers to pulverize gristle
and bone into a fine powder. The worker had just turned the machine
off, but Kenny knew the hammers inside were still spinning. It
takes fifteen minutes for the machine to shut down completely.
Kenny yelled, "Stop!" but the worker didn't hear him.
And so Kenny ran across the room, grabbed the man by the seat
of his pants, and pulled him away from the machine an instant
before it would have pulverized him. To honor this act of bravery,
Monfort gave Kenny an award for "Outstanding Achievement
in CONCERN FOR FELLOW WORKERS. The award was a paper certificate,
signed by his supervisor and the plant safety manager.
Kenny later broke his leg stepping into
a hole in the slaughterhouse's concrete floor. On another occasion
he shattered an ankle, an injury that required surgery and the
insertion of five steel pins. Now Kenny had to wear a metal brace
on one leg in order to walk, an elaborate, spring-loaded brace
that cost $2,000. Standing for long periods caused him great pain.
He was given a job recycling old knives at the plant. Despite
his many injuries, the job required him to climb up and down three
flights of narrow stairs carrying garbage bags filled with knives.
In December of 1995 Kenny felt a sharp pain in his chest while
lifting some boxes. He thought it was a heart attack. His union
steward took him to see the nurse, who said it was just a pulled
muscle and sent Kenny home. He was indeed having a massive heart
attack. A friend rushed Kenny to a nearby hospital. A stent was
inserted in his heart, and the doctors told Kenny that he was
lucky to be alive.
While Kenny Dobbins was recuperating,
Monfort fired him. Despite the fact that Kenny had been with the
company for almost sixteen years, despite the fact that he was
first in seniority at the Greeley plant, that he'd cleaned blood
tanks with his bare hands, fought the union, done whatever the
company had asked him to do, suffered injuries that would've killed
weaker men, nobody from Monfort called him with the news. Nobody
even bothered to write him. Kenny learned that he'd been fired
when his payments to the company health insurance plan kept being
returned by the post office. He called Monfort repeatedly to find
out what was going on, and a sympathetic clerk in the claims office
finally told Kenny that the checks were being returned because
he was no longer a Monfort employee. When I asked company spokesmen
to comment on the accuracy of Kenny's story, they would neither
confirm nor deny any of the details.
Today Kenny is in poor health. His heart
is permanently damaged. His immune system seems shot. His back
hurts, his ankle hurts, and every so often he coughs up blood.
He is unable to work at any job. His wife, Clara-who's half-Latina
and half-Cheyenne, and looks like a younger sister of Cher's-was
working as a nursing home attendant when Kenny had the heart attack.
Amid the stress of his illness, she developed a serious kidney
ailment. She is unemployed and recovering from a kidney transplant.
As I sat in the living room of their Greeley
home, its walls decorated with paintings of wolves, Denver Broncos
memorabilia, and an American flag, Kenny and Clara told me about
their financial condition. After almost sixteen years on the job,
Kenny did not get any pension from Monfort. The company challenged
his workers' comp claim and finally agreed-three years after the
initial filing-to pay him a settlement of $35,000. Fifteen percent
of that money went to Kenny's lawyer, and the rest is long gone.
Some months Kenny has to hock things to get money for Clara's
medicine. They have two teenage children and live on Social Security
payments. Kenny's health insurance, which costs more than $600
a month, is about to run out. His anger at Monfort, his feelings
of betrayal, are of truly biblical proportions.
"They used me to the point where
I had no body parts left to give," Kenny said, struggling
to maintain his composure. "Then they just tossed me into
the trash can." Once strong and powerfully built, he now
walks with difficulty, tires easily, and feels useless, as though
his life were over. He is forty-six years old.