What it’s like to work in an abattoir

Raw deal

Working in an abattoir can be horrible and there’s no support whatsoever

30th October 2017

For a lot of people, the concept of mass-produced meat from abattoirs is distressing. Thousands of animals per week, some with similar intelligence levels to dogs and three-year old children, are slaughtered for consumption on a huge scale – so what’s it like taking lives for a living? If you’ve come here for horror stories, you’ll be (mostly) disappointed. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t grim working in an abattoir.

Brian*, a former slaughterhouse worker, says long hours and very hard work in a pressurised environment can cause workers to cut corners.

“The slaughter process had a veterinary inspection, so there was always someone watching,” he says.

“The place I worked did halal slaughter. I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was necessary. Ours were stunned though, at least. There weren’t really any instances of stunning or slaughter going wrong, perhaps one in 100,000 times. If something goes wrong the whole line has to stop and it has to be put right. We’d always make sure the stunning was done properly. [The stunner] was tested constantly, including after every break and we made sure the people who used it were using it correctly. The priority for us was always the slaughter process.”

Hearing the animal’s welfare is taken into consideration before the slaughter and that the equipment is designed to cause as little distress as possible is redeeming.

However, the slaughter industry certainly isn’t without harm.

“Being a slaughterman is a young man’s job,” he says. “The money is quite good, which makes up for the long hours and physical nature of the job, but there are other effects that people don’t always see coming.”

Depressing

“It’s a very depressing job and it’s not suitable for anyone who suffers with mental health issues. I suffered from depression and it wasn’t a healthy environment. There’s no support, mental health or otherwise.”

Brian says the job is more likely to attract people who might be vulnerable to mental health issues.

“It’s often young people on the slaughter line and not young people who have gone to uni. Some of them have social issues and drug problems. You might think they’re not the kind of people you’d want with a knife in their hand but I never had an occasion where anyone was threatening or abusive.”

The strain on the worker’s mental health when placed daily in a death infused environment is understandable. Should more support be in place? Brian thinks so after suffering mentally from the daily slaughter cycle.

“The first time I walked in I felt physically sick. The smell. It’s something I can’t explain. You must be very thick-skinned or born into it, to be able to put up with it. We used to get farmers visiting who are used to seeing dead animals and their stomachs were turned.”

Sink or swim

Brian says there were a few parts that stayed with him many years later.

The worst thing I saw was a 21-year old lad being thrown into the bloodbath for his birthday

“The part of the line with offal was the worst. It’s the place where the intestines were squeezed out to make cases for sausage meat. It’s just horrible, you feel physically sick.

“It’s sink or swim – if you sink, you just need to leave.

“The worst thing I saw was a 21-year old lad being thrown into the bloodbath for his birthday. It was a ritual, meaning that he was now a man. And yes, the bloodbath is what it sounds like.”

Benjamin Keal is an electrician who was contracted out to work in an abattoir last year. He says even working in the environment was difficult.

“My job consists of electrical installation/testing and inspecting. I think while I was working within the abattoir the thing that stuck with me the most was the way human beings would happily stand there taking endless lives without batting an eyelid. Seeing hundreds of thousands of pigs each week being transferred from a lorry down a conveyor belt watching their fellow piggies getting slaughtered.”

For Keal, the experience sparked a realisation about what we eat and how our food is produced. He found himself unable to carry on eating pork.

“None of my other colleagues were affected in the same way. My mate still eats ham sandwiches every day.

“You never really realise until you witness it with your own eyes. If you have it from a young age you don’t really know anything different,” he says.

Senior clinician Amanda Burns, who works in occupational therapy, agrees that different people react differently to traumatic environments.

It’s normal to feel distressed and emotional with lots of physical responses

“After a traumatic event the mind and body can be in shock, everyone reacts differently and can experience difficult feelings while they come to terms with what has happened. It’s not always easy to take in what has happened and come to terms with it, so it’s normal to feel distressed and emotional with lots of physical responses. For some of us our minds will come to terms with the shock.”

However, other people might have to work harder to overcome the trauma.

“Others may struggle to come to terms with it and keep re-experiencing images, memories and thoughts and emotions about the experience, which we know as post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Lasting effect

She says mental health problems caused by working in these environments can have an impact on family and friends too.

“I also wonder if they are exposed to this every day then they may become used to what they see or desensitised as a way of coping with the work but it could have a massive effect on their relationships outside of work, lack of empathy or compassion for life of their own animals or family?”

It is also important to recognise the consequences of leaving emotional or psychological distress caused in the workspace unaddressed.

“If trauma is left unaddressed it can affect all other aspects of your life, you can be constantly on alert, have flashbacks which could be in the form of images, or smells or sounds that can be triggered by similar situations, however, it could be in this case there could be more numbing of emotions and lack of empathy with family and friends as a learnt coping strategy.

“When someone is psychologically distressed it can impact on their physical health,” she adds.

Help, however, is not widely available for staff in abattoirs, but Burns says there are some things that people can do to help themselves.

She advises staff to talk to each other and spot areas where a toxic culture of not speaking up is happening.

“Having a good work/life balance can be helpful. Do meaningful activities or hobbies that give pleasure and a sense of closeness to others. Learn to see the job as work, if you’re able to, and not take it home.”

*Name changed.

30th October 2017