12 Facts About The Nightmarish Conditions In Industrial Meat Packing Plants

In 1906, Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungleabout conditions in industrial meat packing plants, was published. It was a fictionalized account of what it was like in the meat packing industry, and how horrible working conditions were in meat packing plants. Sadly enough, much of what happened in this novel was absolutely true, and was taken from real experiences. This novel served as a wake up call that led to a series of improvements in the industry to make our food safer and to provide better conditions for factory workers.

In general, conditions in Industrial Revolution-era factories were unsafe, unhygienic, and meant workers died without anyone really caring. No one knew about how bad it was, and no one really wanted to know. After all, you don't ask what's in the sausage, right?

Although much of this has changed today, it's still worth acknowledging that this stuff happened only a little over a century ago. Please be warned, some of the accounts and descriptions here are chillingly graphic. You may never see meat the same way again.

  • The Machines Were Deadly

    Machines in packing plants made work faster, more streamlined, and easier in a lot of ways. Unfortunately, these machines could also end up being harmful to workers. Most machines had sharp parts for cutting and pressing, and all it took was a hand or finger to get into the works for it to be crushed or severed.

    When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, he fictionalized real accounts given to him when he went undercover in the plants, and much of the book talks about injuries and harm done to workers. As he says in one particularly awful passage:

    There were the men in the pickle rooms, for instance, where old Antanas had gotten his death; scarce a one of these that had not some spot of horror on his person. Let a man so much as scrape his finger pushing a truck in the pickle rooms, and he might have a sore that would put him out of the world; all the joints in his fingers might be eaten by the acid, one by one.

    Of the butchers and floorsmen, the beef-boners and trimmers, and all those who used knives, you could scarcely find a person who had the use of his thumb; time and time again the base of it had been slashed, till it was a mere lump of flesh against which the man pressed the knife to hold it. The hands of these men would be criss-crossed with cuts, until you could no longer pretend to count them or to trace them.

  • Workers' Body Parts Sometimes Made It Into The Cans Of Meat

    With so many injuries and amputated limbs, you might think that workers would have to be on constant guard in order to keep contaminants from getting into the meat. On the contrary, hair, skin, blood, and even amputated limbs could sometimes get into the canned meat, and would be shipped out without being checked. This was most common with sausage and lard.

    In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair also talks about the occurrence of workers falling into lard vats and being left there, undiscovered, for hours or even days. Because lard is made by dissolving fat, the human flesh would simply become a part of the product: 

    ...and as for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting,--sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham's Pure Leaf Lard!

  • The Floor Was Usually Caked In Blood, Bile, And Filth

    The conditions in these factories were anything by hygienic. No hand washing, no gloves, and in some places there were no bathrooms for workers to use. On top of that, much of the plant involved tearing apart meat and processing it, so blood and guts got pretty much everywhere. Workers had to stay all day, standing in blood, dirt, contaminated water, scraps of meat and skin, and excess chemicals. These attracted rats, some of which made it into the finished canned meat.

    This definitely had a negative impact on the health of the workers. In those days, bovine tuberculosis was particularly common, and that could be passed to humans through milk or contaminated meat. Once a worker had it, they still could not stop working, for fear of being out of a job or home. So they would spit blood onto the floor, coughing on other workers and on the meat, spreading the disease around. The ensuing lung infections often caused death. 

  • Plants Regularly Employed Children

    Meat packing plants regularly employed children to do even the most dangerous and disgusting jobs. It was standard that the children had to be at least 14 years of age, but that restriction wasn't exactly well enforced. Children as young as eight could be found in some of the larger factories, and these individuals were often most at risk for injuries.

    Chicago's meat packing industry was especially bad for this, and many departments preferred to employ children because they did not need as much pay, and had hands and bodies better suited to the work. Along with many adults, children were permanently maimed or killed in these horrible work conditions.

  • Workers Were Constantly Exposed To Toxic Chemicals

    If the machines weren't hurting people, the factory had other ways of harming its workers. Chemicals were used in just about every part of the canning and butchering process, and hygiene conditions were so poor that it was impossible to avoid getting these chemicals onto and into your body. There was no hand-washing, and most workers did not use gloves, so the chemicals were also passed into the meat, often in a toxic way.

    Upton Sinclair touched on the presence of these chemicals in The Jungle

    They were regular alchemists at Durham’s; they advertised a mushroom-catsup, and the men who made it did not know what a mushroom looked like...  And then there was ‘potted game’ and ‘potted grouse,’ ‘potted ham,’ and ‘deviled ham’—de-vyled, as the men called it. ‘De-vyled’ ham was made out of the waste ends of smoked beef that were too small to be sliced by the machines; and also tripe, dyed with chemicals so that it would not show white; and trimmings of hams and corned beef; and potatoes, skins and all; and finally the hard cartilaginous gullets of beef, after the tongues had been cut out. All this ingenious mixture was ground up and flavored with spices to make it taste like something.

  • There Was Zero Ventilation Or Temperature Control

    The amount of time spent in these plants could be 12 hours per day, or even more, without seeing the sun, the sky, or the outside at all. What's worse is that there wasn't any fresh air, either. In order to (unsuccessfully) keep out rats, flies, and other vermin, most factories were kept almost entirely closed off, providing zero ventilation. In summer, the factories would get unbearably hot, which meant the place reeked of bad meat, bile, and sweating workers. In the winter, the factories were not heated, so workers were cold, making their hands clumsy and their work all the more risky.

    This lack of ventilation wasn't just annoying and depressing for workers, but it also negatively impacted their health. Without fresh air, bacteria, mold, and rot would fester, and workers would breathe it in or ingest it. These closed conditions made the work even more deadly.