In 1906, Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, about 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.
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.
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 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.
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.