“Animal agriculture” employs approximately 700,000 full-time and part-time workers in the United States. The industry is largely defined by the factory farm model in which billions of animals are raised and slaughtered for human consumption each year. Factory farm workers are consistently exposed to a variety of harmful gases and particulate matter and also suffer from repetitive stress injuries. The resulting health effects are well documented and include chronic aches and pains, respiratory disorders, cardiovascular complications and premature death. Driven by rigid contracts set forth by their corporate partners, factory farms knowingly jeopardize workers’ health in order to maximize profits.
About the Workers
A large percentage of factory farm workers are people of color including migrant workers from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. The majority of workers are full-time laborers who have relocated to the rural towns dominated by factory farming. In addition, several thousand temporary workers are brought in annually through the government’s H-2A work visa program.
An unknown percentage of full-time and part-time workers are undocumented. Employers find undocumented workers to be ideal recruits because they are less likely to complain about low wages and hazardous working conditions.
Workers are largely unaware of the inherent health hazards and social struggles they will encounter in this industry. Differences in language and culture often leave workers feeling like outcasts in their new community.
Nature of the Work
The work performed on factory farms varies greatly depending on the animal being raised, the phase of “production” and the employee’s job title. While some maintenance duties such as administering food and water are accomplished by automated machinery, manual laborers are needed to perform a variety of critical tasks.
“Breeding farms” and “hatcheries” are facilities that focus exclusively on breeding animals in mass quantities. Workers at pig “breeding farms” are responsible for administering antibiotics, clipping the pigs’ teeth, notching their ears, cutting off a part of the tail and castrating the males. ”Hatcheries” breed the chickens who will go on to be used for egg production. Workers’ duties include determining the chicks’ gender and killing all males, cutting off the tip of the females’ beaks and crating the female chicks for transport to the “growing farm.”
“Nurseries” are intermediate sheds where the animals are held before being transported to the “growing” or “finishing” facilities.
“Growing” or “Finishing” facilities are where animals raised for “meat” spend the bulk of their brief lives. Depending on the animal being raised and the worker’s title, responsibilities include monitoring the automated feed and water systems; identifying, treating and/or killing sick, injured or weak animals; removing dead and dying animals from their cages or pens; collecting and packing the animals for transport to the slaughterhouse; cleaning the sheds; and placing the next group of animals.
While most day-to-day tasks are performed by full-time employees, periods of peak activity require the use of temporary workers who are brought in by labor contractors. Because company profits are predicated on extreme efficiency at every stage of “production,” workers are expected to perform their duties at a rate that often compromises their health as well as causes great suffering for the animals.
Health and Safety Hazards
Factory farm workers routinely inhale hazardous levels of particulate matter as well as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gases. Individually, each of these components is capable of causing severe health complications; however, it is their collective effect that is most harmful. Every facility has a unique combination of gases and particulate matter depending on the species of animal, the type of feed, the method of ventilation and the facility’s manure handling and storage practices.
Inhalable particulate matter is generally defined as airborne particles capable of reaching the lungs during normal breathing. In factory farms, these particles can come from many sources including dry fecal matter, feed, animal dander and skin cells, feathers, fungi, dry soil and bacterial endotoxins. The prevalence of these conditions is evident by the fact that nearly 70% of all workers in pig confinement operations experience one or more symptoms of respiratory irritation or illness.
Levels of inhalable particulate matter increase significantly during periods of peak activity such as moving large numbers of animals from one area to another, collecting and packing animals for transport to the slaughterhouse and cleaning the sheds. As a result, workers suffer chronic respiratory disorders, exacerbation of asthma, cardiovascular complications and premature death.
Ammonia is a gas that is released from the large volumes of urine and manure that accumulate on factory farms. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) consistently allows industry profits to take precedence over workers’ interests. For example, despite the fact that ammonia is known to cause eye irritation and respiratory problems in levels as low as 6 parts per million (ppm), OSHA continues to permit ammonia levels up to 50 ppm in the workplace.[5,6]Regular exposure to ammonia also damages the cilia of the throat, allowing inhaled particulate matter to travel deep into the respiratory tract.
Hydrogen sulfide gas is emitted primarily from liquid manure. Repeat exposure to low volumes of hydrogen sulfide can cause symptoms such as dry skin, eye irritation, nausea, low blood pressure, headaches and chronic coughs.
Large volumes of liquid manure are stored below grated floors or outside the sheds in “manure lagoons.” Many workers who have entered these “manure lagoons” to perform maintenance tasks have been instantaneously asphyxiated by the release of hydrogen sulfide gas. Once unconscious, workers quickly drown in the liquid manure. These deadly incidents usually involve multiple co-workers attempting to rescue one another, as was the case at Aguiar-Faria & Sons dairy in Merced County, California.
One afternoon, Enrique Araiza was trying to clear a blockage in a manure pit pump when he was overcome by the gases and collapsed facedown in the manure. Attempting to rescue his co-worker, Jose Alatorre entered the pit but was also asphyxiated by the gases. Tragically, both men died. Enrique Araiza was 29 and Jose Alatorre was 24.
In addition to the airborne hazards they face, many workers also experience chronic muscle aches due to the repetitive nature of their work. Workers, such as those who pull chickens from battery cages, repeat the same motions for hours on end, commonly working 12-hour shifts.
Quality of Life
Like most agricultural employees, factory farm workers struggle to avoid hazards in the workplace and to earn a living wage. Their work is plagued by a variety of chronic health conditions that persist long after their workday is over. Physicians often encourage workers to leave their jobs, however, most feel they are unqualified for other lines of work.
Motivated by the need to support their family, most workers choose to continue working in conditions that pose serious short-term and long-term health risks. The fact that these workers must compromise their physical health in order to achieve financial security is an indictment of both the industry’s ethics and the priorities of state and federal labor agencies.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, union advocate Greg Denier described the situation best: “Rather than raise the standards of the industry, many employers have sought to recruit workers who will simply accept less” – “Most of the time we’re bargaining just for basic human decency.“
Most consumers do not realize that approximately 99% of all animal products consumed in the U.S. come from animals raised in factory farms.
Factory farming is an inherently hazardous industry that exploits both workers and the animals. It is founded on the belief that higher production levels and greater efficiency are always optimal, regardless of how they affect working conditions and animal suffering. On a daily basis, workers are exposed to a variety of known hazards and are required to routinely mutilate animals by performing castrations, teeth clipping, tail cutting, ear notching and debeaking as well as killing animals who are weak and dying. Many of these practices are not unique to large-scale factory farms. Even on smaller farms, workers are required to perform many of these same mutilations.
The ineffectiveness and outright complacency of state and federal regulatory agencies have allowed the industry to exploit workers with little or no threat of punishment and there is no sign of significant change on the horizon. While it can be difficult to follow a diet completely free from exploitation, we can significantly minimize the suffering. Since we don’t need to consume animal products to be healthy, choosing a vegan lifestyle is an effective way to avoid contributing to the suffering endured by both the workers and the animals.
 “Livestock Confinement Dusts and Gases.” Iowa State University Extension. 1992.http://nasdonline.org/static_content/documents/1627/d001501.pdf (5/27/10)
 “Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs) Chemicals Associated with Air Emissions.” Prepared by the CAFO subcommittee of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Toxics Steering Group (TSG). 2006. http://www.michigan.gov/documents/CAFOs-Chemicals_Associated_with_Air_Emissions_5-10-06_158862_7.pdf (5/27/10)
 “Temporary Farm Labor: The H-2A Program and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Proposed Changes in the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR).” Congressional Research Service. 2008.http://www.nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/RL34739.pdf (6/22/10)
 Mikesell, Robert. “The Swine Industry in the United States.” Swine Production Guidelines. Pennsylvania State University Extension. 2009. http://www.thejudgingconnection.com/pdfs/Swine_Production_Guidelines.pdf (6/12/10)
 “Safety and Health Topics: Ammonia.” U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) – Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). 2003.http://www.osha.gov/dts/chemicalsampling/data/CH_218300.html (5/29/10)
 McLeod W., Doss H.J., Person H.L. “Beware of Manure Pit Hazards.” Michigan State University Extension. Adapted from Baker J., Curtis S., Hogsett, O., et al; “Safety in swine production systems, Pork Industry Handbook.” Publication PIH-104, Cooperative Extension Service, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, 1986. Accessed from the National Ag Safety Database.http://nasdonline.org/document/1298/d001097/beware-of-manure-pit-hazards.html (5/29/10)
 “Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) CAS 7783-0604; UN 1053.” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) – Centers for Disease Control (CDC).http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/mhmi/mmg114.pdf (6/1/10)
 Arrieta, R.M. “California Dairy Workers Face Danger and Abuse.” Dollars & Sense.http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2004/0904arrieta.html (6/23/10)
 Katz, Jesse. “New Migrant Trails Take Latinos to Remote Towns.” Los Angeles Times. 1996.http://articles.latimes.com/1996-11-12/news/mn-63879_1_latino-migrants/8 (6/5/10)
 Safran-Foer, Jonathan. “The Truth About Factory Farming.” Government Accountability Project. 2010. http://www.whistleblower.org/press/gap-in-the-news/361 (6/8/10)