How do you sleep at night? An interview with a slaughterhouse worker

“They don’t give you any heads up that you’re gonna be witnessing hell on earth.”

How Do You Sleep at Night?

Most jobs are at least a little bit evil. Capitalism and the industries that fuel it are pretty much always either causing massive environmental damage or exploiting people — sometimes both. But certain jobs are viewed as being more unethical than others, and the people who work in those roles are looked down upon by society at large. In this column, we’ll talk to people in some of those roles and try to figure out how they sleep at night.

Being around death all day isn’t great for your mental health. Working in a slaughterhouse has been shown to lead to PTSD, and some studies have found that slaughterhouse employees are more likely to be violent towards people, possibly as a result of becoming desensitized to violence through their work.

It’s also physically dangerous. According to OSHA, people who work in beef and pork processing are almost seven times more likely to suffer from repetitive motion injuries as workers in other industries. They’re also at risk of being exposed to a wide variety of unpleasant things, including high noise levels, hazardous chemicals, and diseases that are carried in animal blood and feces.

On top of that, the industry and the people who work within it are pretty unpopular. An increasing number of people are becoming vegetarian and vegan, and many who do eat meat have issues with the ways animals are raised and slaughtered, or the amount of damage done to the planet by raising animals as food. There aren’t many other industries that require you to regularly dodge protesters as you enter your workplace.

To get a sense of what it’s like to work in the industry, we spoke to *Gary, who worked for two and a half years in a meat processing plant, during which time he estimates he slaughtered “tens of thousands of pigs, thousands of cows, and a few hundred lambs.” He left the industry late last year.

Mic: Could you talk through the process of what happens to an animal from the time it enters the facility until the time it leaves?

Gary: Well [the pigs] show up, they’d be in the barn, and we’d instantly start to kill. We used CO2 stunning where we were.

How does that work?

We’d just load them up into the machine — probably two, three, four at a time — they’d go down [into CO2] and it pretty much made them brain dead for when they came back up. It’s kind of like being put to sleep for surgery.

Then what happens?

You hang them up and you bleed them out.

So what actually kills the animal?

The person stabbing it in the throat and bleeding it out.

Is the killing process the same for all of the animals?

No. With cows and lambs we used captive bolt pistols.

Like the thing from No Country For Old Men?

Yes.

What happens to the animals after they’re dead?

Well, it’s a different process for each animal. Hogs, after they’re dead, we let them bleed out for about 45 seconds, make sure they’re actually dead, then they’ll get scalded in hot water. That’s just to soften the bristles so when it goes in the dehairer, which is something that paddles the carcass, it knocks most of the hair off. It makes it easier on the shaving process. Then it goes through a buffer to dry it, and then a torch tunnel to get the rest of the hair off and then a final wash. After it gets out of the wash it gets shaved and then you cut out the hair that’s still in between the toes, pull off any toe nails that still might be on, and then that’s where you actually start evisceration.

It sounds like it’s a pretty gruesome process.

In the back, yes, it is. It’s not the most wanted job for a lot of people.

Right. Did you work in the back?

I’ve done everything. Worked the barn, I’ve stunned, I’ve killed, I’ve scalded.

Is it physically difficult to move the animals from one place to the other?

Oh yeah, they do not cooperate. They can be mean.

Do you think they have some idea of what’s going on?

Oh no, that’s just their nature, they show up not knowing what’s going to happen and they can still be miserable. Of course sometimes they travel up to three hours in certain temperatures. I’d be a little miserable, too. Sometimes in the middle of winter and whatnot there can be incidents of hogs showing up dead. Same as in the heat of the summer.

Do you remember the first time you actually killed an animal?

Yep.

Was it difficult?

It takes a certain type of person to be able to do that job. I’m not saying that you have to be, like, a psychopath or anything like that. But you have to have a good understanding of why you’re doing it. Me, how I compartmentalized it, was: I’m putting food on people’s plates and this is the start of it. I would rather it be me — somebody who’s more humane — working with the animals than, say, somebody who likes kicking and hitting them.

What type of person do you think the industry attracts?

It preys on foreign workers, temp agency workers, people who are stuck in minimum-wage environments.

Did the killing get easier over time?

It does get easier over time. But it’s pretty much the same as a war veteran when he gets PTSD. It’s systematic killing. You’ve gotta have the right mentality. Kind of like what the army would look for in soldiers. Somebody who’s not going to have mental breakdowns the minute they see combat.

How did people react when you told them what you did for a job?

Some people are repulsed. Other people understand that that’s where you get your meat from. But then again, there are some people that don’t even understand that meat comes from animals.

How do you feel about the way that the industry and its workers are viewed by the public?

Well I think that they should get a little bit more slack, being as they’re people in hard situations just grabbing the first job they can get. But the industry does need more transparency, it needs more regulations.

Did you ever become attached to the pigs?

Well yeah, they’re actually pretty funny creatures once you start hanging out with them, some of them. We had times when we had machinery break and whatnot and I’d go in the barn, I’d hang out with the hogs, pet them, try to get them a little more calm for when we start so they’re more willing to cooperate.

It sounds like the whole process was pretty efficient. Did things go wrong?

Oh yeah. Things go wrong all the time, Sometimes hogs will come up [from the CO2 stunner] gasping and you’d have to shoot them. That’s why we have two captive bolt pistols ready all the time. There’s also been incidents where we’ve had rookies on the scald tank who decide to throw the hog in right away, as it’s still bleeding, and sometimes they spring back to life and swim.

Jesus. So they’re swimming in boiling water?

Yeah. Well, scalding. But either way it’s hot enough that… Yes. It’s horrible. But the thing is that they were not technically alive. They don’t squeal. They just thrash around.

What was the worst thing you saw there?

I’ve seen people stab live hogs. That was just because the captive bolt pistol was not maintained properly that day. It wasn’t working. The hog was gasping for air and breathing and the only thing we can do is put it out of its misery as quick as we could.

Does that have more of a mental toll on you than killing them after they’ve been stunned?

Most definitely. They’re looking right at you and it’s not pretty. There’s been instances where hogs come out [of the CO2 stunner] and they’re not just gasping they’re fully alive and they’re trying to get out of the trough that they slide out onto and into a giant puddle of blood and then you’re chasing it around trying to shoot it in the head.

And it’s like, slipping around in blood?

Yep.

That sounds like something from a nightmare.

Yeah, the first time I saw it happen, the hog dropped out of the trough, it started flapping around in the blood drain area and then it fell down into the blood pit area and then [my coworker] was just trying to shoot it and… It did not want to die that day.

Do you think the job took a toll on your mental health?

Eh, my mental health was kind of affected way before that. But yes, it is most definitely a job that, depending where they put you [can affect your mental health].

Were there support systems in place for the workers?

No. Not at all. Not in any way, shape, or form.

What about when you started the job? Was there any effort to prepare you?

They basically just go through food safety, and workplace safety and whatnot. They don’t give you any heads up that you’re gonna be witnessing hell on earth.

Did it pay well?

No [laughs]. Not at all. Not compared to what you gotta do there. The thing is that it’s a really, really physical, grueling job, too. You’re working in anywhere from 30 to 40-degree celsius temperatures [80 to 100 F] because you’re over by a scald tank that’s steaming, a torch tunnel that’s running, and you’ve gotta lift deadweight 300, 400-pound hogs.

What made you leave the industry?

Just a better-paying job. Better opportunity.

Would you work in it again?

If need be. If I was really, really destitute, still in that small town, no other option for a job. Yes, I would. But that’s what the industry preys on.

*Gary’s name has been changed due to concerns of violating his NDA.