Working Conditions in the Meat Packing Industry

The motif from these blogs is the working conditions experienced by laborers as a direct result of a changing environment. In this particular case, the meat packing industry in major cities in the United States will be analyzed. The time period for these poor working conditions was around the early 1900’s, during a time of unregulated business and a lack of sanitation standards. This blog aims to take a deeper look inside the working conditions of the meat packing industry while also taking into account the environment that was changed a certain way that directly affected the well being of these workers.

As discussed in previous blog entries, the concept of reducing costs and promoting efficiency was the primary thing on the minds of business owners. In the realm of the meat packing industry, there were no regulations put in place in order to aid the laborers that were exposed to such heinous working hazards. Not only were the conditions treacherous, the quality of product being distributed from such factories were not sanitary and quite possibly contaminated. Since washing and personal protective equipment was not a note of concern for business owners, remnants of hair, sweat and dirt would often find their way into the packed meat. These upcoming paragraphs will give further detail on the subject of the working conditions in the meat packing industry, as well as how the conditions were eventually remedied.

More Meat for the Grinder

During the early 1900’s a novel was published by a young journalist by the name of Upton Sinclair. His book, The Jungle, brought to light the sheer horror of the meat packing industry. This was one of the most stunning discoveries that created such a prolific ripple effect that ultimately lead to enactment of the of many food safety laws. Even though the main inspiration for the book was to bring attention to the living and working conditions of the workers, the main topic of discussion as a result of the book was the making and packing of the meat in the factories. Sinclair himself said “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit in the stomach.”

Poster advertising THE JUNGLE, Upton Sinclair’s novel attacking the political corruption and unsanitary conditions of the meat

As an aside, I will give a brief overview of the disgusting nature of the process of making and processing the meat to draw parallels with the working environment. Workers would take scraps and chunks of meat that had fallen off of the hoppers and would simply put the meat right back into the mechanism. The disturbing issue with this was that the meat that had fallen onto the floor was trampled by workers as well as the infestation of rats that would defecate on the rotting meat. In addition to recycling tainted meat, the remnants of burnt ends and chunks of meat would be placed in waste barrels. These barrels would ferment and fester for months on end. Workers would clean out these barrels that contained a plethora of dirt and rust. In order to give the meat a “smoky” flavor, these barrels would be added to the hoppers.

Carving of Meat During the Early 1900’s

Aside from the putrid and repulsive processing of the meat, the working conditions were equally as jaw dropping. Working in the cutting part of the plants required the use of heavy machinery. Fingers and hands were scarred and commonly ripped off in the packing plant. Workers in the tank rooms accepted the risk of falling into open vats. What was truly devastating about this revelation is that, prior to increased inspection regulations, these poor souls that fell into the vats were processed and eventually shipped out with the packaged meat. The working hours added to the misery experience by impoverished laborers during this time.  As stated in my previous blog discussing the Industrial Revolution, companies minimized the amount of pay for workers in order to increase overall profits. Additionally, laborers were required to work around 10 hours every day in the factories.

The working conditions in the meat packing industry during the early 1900’s was primal and barbaric. Stemming directly from the environment, workers had no choice but to endure these conditions. The need for economic growth and profits took precedence over the well being of laborers. It was not until the Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, that legislation became enacted. Not only did it preserve the workers themselves, it also made the final product safer for public consumption. The environment was changed immensely as a result of the Industrial Revolution and was changed even further from the working conditions experienced in the meat packing industry. Much like the effect of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the discovery of a harmful environment created legislation that changed the current status of the environment. These are not the only isolated events of one person’s pursuit causing a paradigm shift in society’s environment. Being able to identify the reasons why and how the environment was changed can help to alter it to our benefit.


  • “Conditions in Meatpacking Plants (1906, by Upton Sinclair).” Dictionary of American (November 25, 2017).
  • National Safety Council, Meat Industry Safety Guidelines (Chicago, 1979), p. 33. (November 25, 2017).
  • “Inside a Russian Slaughterhouse, It’s a Far Cry from ‘The Jungle’.” Image.  National Geographic (November 25, 2017).
  • “The Meatpacking Industry During The Early 1900’s.” Image.  History Blog  (November 25, 2017).


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