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Meat Packing Worker Job Description, Career as a Meat Packing Worker, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: High school

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Fair

Definition and Nature of the Work

Meat packers work in large meat packing plants or smaller slaughterhouses that prepare beef, lamb, and pork. They use several kinds of knives, cleavers, and saws to do their work. Most of their work is done on assembly lines. Raw meat passes through about forty-five different operations before it is ready for the market.

First, workers bring the animals from holding lots to individual pens in the slaughterhouse. Meat packing plants must follow the federal Humane Slaughter Act of 1960. The law requires slaughterhouses to use humane methods that do not cause the animals pain. Workers called stunners use mechanical or chemical devices to make the animals unconscious before they slaughter them. When the animal is unconscious, shacklers hoist it to an overhead rail belt. Animal stickers then cut the jugular vein and let all the blood drain from the carcass, or dead body. The overhead rail then brings the carcass to steamers, de-hairing machine tenders, singers, and shavers, who remove the hide, hair, and dirt, and clean the carcass with water and brushes. Then carcass splitters cleave the carcass open and remove the innards. After eviscerators and offal separators separate the edible and inedible parts from the carcass, they send the split sides to a chilling room for twenty-four to forty-eight hours. After chilling, meatcutters, or butchers, cut the heads off the carcasses. Using cleavers, saws, and knives, they slice beef and lamb into various sizes, such as quarters, forequarters, and hindquarters. They ship some meat this way to wholesalers or other customers.

Meat packing workers may bone and trim the meat if the wholesaler requests it. Band saw operators and trimmers divide the quarters into large cuts, such as loins or rounds. Sometimes packing plant workers prepare individual cuts, such as steaks and chops. Most often, however, the wholesaler or retailer does this last step.

Hogs, although slaughtered the same way as cattle, calves, and lambs, are processed differently. Hogs have tough, hairy hides. Before skinners remove the hide from the carcass, they scald it to soften the hair. Singers shave, singe, or use automatic scrapers to remove most of the hair. As with other animal carcasses, meat packing workers wash, split, and chill hog carcasses. Then workers may cut the meat into fresh pork for the market. Dry curers pack some meat with curing agents such as salt, sugar, or sodium nitrate. The curing is done in modern smokehouses. After they cure the meat, workers use machines that slice and mold bacon. Other workers operate machines that weigh and package the bacon. Often, they make sausages from pork meat. As part of this process, casing-running-machine tenders operate machines that grind the meat and stuff it into the sausage casings. Other workers tend machines that cook or smoke the sausage for the market.

To protect consumers, health safety inspectors carefully check all meat often during the process. First they inspect the live animals before they enter the slaughterhouse—meat packing plants will accept only healthy animals. Inspection continues throughout processing. The meat must be prepared under clean, sanitary conditions. Inspectors decide when meat is unfit for use. Harmful additives cannot be used in meat, and labeling must not be false. Agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture routinely inspect meat packing plants. Local government agencies may do other inspections.

Education and Training Requirements

Many employers prefer to hire applicants who have a high school education. Interested students should take courses in shop to develop their mechanical ability. Training takes place on the job. Some trade schools offer courses in meat packing and processing work.

Getting the Job

The largest meat packing plants are in Omaha, Nebraska; Kansas City and St. Joseph, Missouri; Joliet, Illinois; St. Paul, Minnesota; Fort Worth, Texas; and Los Angeles, California. Meat packing plants, slaughterhouses, and butchers accept applications made in person. The state employment and newspaper classifieds also offer job leads.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Workers may advance to more highly skilled work that offers better pay. In unionized plants workers with the most experience receive the first opportunity for better jobs. Sometimes meat packing plants shift workers from one kind of work to another. Workers with experience in several operations in the plant may advance to supervisory positions.

Overall employment of meat packing workers is expected to grow as fast as the average through the year 2012. Although meat packing plants are increasingly mechanized, the growing popularity of labor-intensive, ready-to-heat meat and poultry products will increase the demand for workers. Openings will also occur when experienced workers retire or leave their jobs for other reasons.

Working Conditions

Some work in meat packing plants may be hazardous. Workers are exposed to intense heat or extreme cold. Beginners may need to adjust to the strong odors in slaughterhouses. Many devices are used to protect the workers' safety. The slippery floors are often corrugated, and steel-capped shoes may be worn. Workers may wear hard hats, special aprons, arm-guards, or mesh gloves. Despite these safeguards, there is still a chance for serious injury, which is always the case when workers use equipment such as large knives, cleavers, and other sharp cutting tools.

The meat packers' work week averages more than forty hours, including overtime, for which workers are paid time and a half. Higher wages are paid for weekend and holiday work. Many workers belong to labor unions.

Where to Go for More Information

American Association of Meat Processors
P.O. Box 269
One Meating Place
Elizabethtown, PA 17022
(717) 367-1168

National Meat Canners Association
1150 Connecticut Ave. NW, 12th fl.
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 587-4273

United Food and Commercial Workers International Union
1775 K St., NW
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 223-3111

Earnings and Benefits

Wages for meat packing workers vary with experience and location of the work. The average income of butchers and meatcutters is $25,500 per year. Less skilled meatpacking workers, such as meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers, earn an average of $17,820 per year. Meat cutters who take advantage of overtime can earn more. The union contracts determine benefits such as holidays, paid vacations, and health and life insurance. In nonunion plants, wages for unskilled work begin at the minimum wage.

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