Animals Aren’t The Only Victims In Slaughterhouses
Across the globe, slaughterhouse workers (SHWs) kill 70 billion animals each year. They are unique in that they have permission to kill living beings. Some research exists on others who kill as part of their profession, including war veterans, veterinarians, and those who experiment on animals. However, little is known about the psychological effects on the people who carry out such tasks in abattoirs.
This literature review examines the psychological impacts of slaughterhouse work on SHWs. A majority of these employees have limited education and come from poorer backgrounds. Their jobs are dangerous, with an average of two amputations per week in the United States. They work long shifts in unhygienic environments. Turnover rates are high, and the jobs often fall to those with limited options such as migrant workers or released convicts. For example, up to 70% of U.K. SHWs are migrant workers.
The authors assessed fourteen empirical studies about SHWs in the U.S., Australia, South Africa, Turkey, Brazil, Denmark, and Ireland. 36% of the studies focused on cow slaughterhouses, while 21% were chicken facilities and 7% were pig facilities. The remainder handled a mix of animals or didn’t specify. While some of the studies looked at workers responsible for killing animals, others compared kill floor workers to other SHW roles or other so-called “dirty work” professions, such as janitors and home cleaners.
The authors grouped their findings into three categories.
- Prevalence of mental health disorders
SHWs showed more mental health concerns than the general public. Depression and anxiety were the most often reported issues, with depression rates among SHWs anywhere from 10 to 50% higher than the general public. This was especially evident in workers on the kill floor: One South African study found that after their first kill, SHWs experience trauma, anxiety, severe shock, paranoia, and other distressing emotions. The dehumanization felt by workers was also psychologically damaging. They felt like part of a machine and thus easily replaceable. SHWs were also more likely to display attitudes that supported violence and aggression.
- Coping mechanisms used by SHWs
SHWs coped with their work in a variety of ways. While some employed healthy release mechanisms such as relying on social support networks, others did not. Those involved in killing animals reported denying or repressing their feelings. SHWs in various functions detached emotionally, used drugs or alcohol, or showed violent tendencies. Sick days and daydreaming on the job were common, but daydreaming can distract workers and lead to injuries.
- Link between slaughterhouse employment and criminal acts
Only two articles in the sample explored the link between slaughterhouse work and crime. Researchers in both studies found that slaughterhouse work was associated with an increase in sexual assault between 1997-2002. However, there was no association between working in an abattoir and other violent crimes, such as murder or non-sexual assault.
Modern slaughterhouses are prosperous, industrialized factories that demand extreme efficiency on the production line. Enacting more humane conditions for workers will safeguard the psychological health of the (often marginalized) people who work in these facilities. Focusing efforts on improving slaughterhouse conditions, such as slowing line speeds and increasing inspections, may also reduce animal suffering, at least a little. Ending the mass slaughter of animals is the ultimate goal, but small improvements along the way count as progress.