Employment and Jobs

Field to Feast: The Workers and Hazardous Jobs Behind our Thanksgiving Meal

November 9, 2023  • Merrit Stüven

Every November, families in the United States gather around the Thanksgiving table to celebrate, bond, and enjoy a nice meal together. However, few consider how that meal reaches our tables, despite the fact that the food supply chain involves some of the harshest working conditions in the country. The predominantly immigrant workers who harvest and process our food are subjected to dangerous and harsh conditions, and often they do not have the wages or time off to have the same leisurely Thanksgiving that many families enjoy. As we at the Economic Opportunities Program sit down for our holiday meals, we are thinking of the workers that make them possible and the urgent need to improve job quality in this sector. 

The Dangerous Work Behind the Thanksgiving Turkey

The turkey is the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving tables. And while turkeys are only processed in these quantities once a year in the US, poultry processing is a giant industry year-round — and one of the most hazardous. To meet demand, most poultry plants process 140 animals per minute and, during the holidays, workers put in even longer hours than usual. The combination of repetitive motion and high speed is often harmful for workers. While some aspects of poultry processing are automated, deboning — the process of breaking down a bird into its separate parts — is done by hand. Repetitive stress injuries are prevalent, with 34% of workers reporting carpal tunnel and 76% reporting nerve disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Handling sharp knives and operating near heavy machinery adds risk; across all US industries, poultry processing has the highest rate of finger amputation. 

Practices designed to safeguard consumers are also causing harm to workers. Strong chemicals like ammonia, chlorine, and peracetic acid are used to treat raw chicken and turkey, preventing food borne illnesses. Combined with insufficient protective equipment, prolonged exposure to these chemicals leads to worker discomfort and illness, including headaches, numbness, and eye pain. And accidents involving these chemicals can cause severe injury and lasting harm.

Before the pandemic, the rate of injuries and illness in poultry processing had steadily been declining, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While rates increased significantly in 2020 and 2021, worker advocates say that even the pre-pandemic decline painted an inaccurate picture of worker safety. In surveys conducted by advocates, injury rates are reported to be much higher. A 2010 survey of Alabama workers, for example, found that 72% of workers reported “significant work-related injury or illness,” a much higher rate than the 5.9% reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that year.

The injuries and illnesses sustained by these poultry workers are significantly impacting their lives, including in the long term. Workers and advocates interviewed by Vox  describe how injuries disrupt their ability to care for their children. Stress injuries make it challenging to perform everyday tasks of parenthood, like picking up their kids. In the worst cases, permanent injuries like amputation will impact workers’ lives, including their ability to find other jobs, forever. 

Farm Workers, Thanksgiving, and the Struggle for Decent Work

A Thanksgiving table is not complete without a generous spread of side dishes. The US farming industry, responsible for producing many of the vegetables and grains we enjoy, employs over  one in every 100 US workers. And the industry’s track record of keeping workers safe is poor. In 2020, 148 agricultural workers lost their lives due to work-related injuries and 11,880 more suffered injuries that required days away from work. Some of these hazards are similar to those faced by poultry processors.The relentless pace of farm work, coupled with repetitive motion, leads to stress and pain among workers. In addition, workers can be in contact with heavy machinery and harsh chemicals like pesticides. Without proper safety precautions, both can cause injury or, in the worst scenarios, fatal accidents.

Farm work has other distinct risks as well. One of the most urgent rising risks for farm workers is heat stress. Since 2011, the BLS has recorded 436 deaths due to heat exposure at work. Despite OSHA’s authority to penalize employers for unsafe conditions, there are currently no standards or requirements for protecting workers from heat. Although OSHA has expressed intentions to introduce new mandates, these protections often take years to be implemented. In the meantime, only five states have passed heat protection laws.

Some farms are implementing nighttime harvests as a measure to reduce heat stress.  However, working during the night introduces its own set of risks for workers. Nighttime work with lower visibility and tired workers creates higher risk of injury. Orchard harvesting, which involves climbing ladders, can be especially dangerous at night. Another risk of nighttime work is sexual harassment and assault, which is already a reality for women working daytime farm shifts. Experts on the topic warn that working in the dark further increases the risk of harassment and assault.

Additional Dangers: Immigrant Workers and Child Labor in the Food Supply Chain

Across the food supply chain, immigrant workers are also likely to face other forms of hardship. Workers in animal slaughtering and processing are about twice as likely to be people of color, to be born outside of the US, and to not have US citizenship.  Similarly, according to Farmworker Justice, 68% of farm workers in the US are foreign born, 36% do not have work authorization, and 20% earn incomes below the poverty line. Many of these workers face the compounding impact of financial insecurity, language barriers, and very real fears of employers retaliating by risking workers’ immigration status. These factors make it increasingly difficult for workers to seek alternative employment, leaving them with fewer options to address hazardous working conditions or to escape these dangerous jobs.

In addition, as this year’s bombshell New York Times reporting has highlighted, child labor is still a much too common occurrence in the US food supply chain. While that reporting told the stories of children working in poultry processing, specifically cleaning poultry plants, child labor in agriculture is also a long-standing reality. In 2019, Human Rights Watch reported that agriculture is the US’ deadliest industry for child workers and that 33 children are injured working on farms every day. The working conditions in these industries, which are hazardous for adults, are even more dangerous for children, physically and psychologically. 

A More Just Food System

Thanksgiving and the upcoming holiday season are a time many families come together to celebrate. Unfortunately, too many workers in our economy cannot afford this simple luxury. Their work does not pay them enough to allow them respite, time off is scarce, and dangerous conditions can lead to illness and injury that impacts their entire family. The workers who ensure we have food on the table when we sit down for meals with our loved ones have a right to the same: an income that is enough to provide for their family and a job where earning that income does not require putting themselves in danger. Providing safe work environments and protecting workers’ physical and psychological health is a necessary baseline for building a more just economy.

In 2024, we’ll continue this urgent conversation on improving jobs in the food supply chain and ideas for change with our colleagues in the Food and Society Program in a three-part discussion series, “The Hands that Feed Us: Job Quality Challenges in the Food Supply Chain.”  To take part, connect with us via email and social media and stay tuned for more information.