‘I Was Coughing So Hard I Would Throw Up’ | Civil Eats

‘I Was Coughing So Hard I Would Throw Up’

Workers at the tens of thousands of hog, chicken, and cow CAFOs in the US face severe respiratory health burdens. The corporate response is risk management.

An animal-ag worker carries two piglets in a CAFO.

A worker carries piglets through a facility similar to those of breed-to-wean operations like Expedition Acres.

For hours every day, Angela Smith walked atop the concentrated excrement of thousands of pigs. As she tended to sows in the massive barns of an industrial hog facility north of her hometown of Canton, Missouri, the animals’ urine and feces continually fell through slatted floors into manure pits below her feet.

Investigation Highlights
  • As government oversight lags, risks compound. Animal confinement workers are subject to long-term lung and acute respiratory injuries from their work environments, and are exposed to asphyxiating gasses from manure. As animal agriculture consolidates and more animals are crowded into CAFOs, these and other hazards become more dangerous.
  • CAFO owners, like the large meatpackers they serve, have begun to adopt risk management models that limit their exposure to risk and liability. The strategy pushes workers further from federal safety nets by breaking large corporations into smaller ones, which reduces the number of employees in each, potentially eliminating OSHA oversight in cases.
  • Read the full series here.

The smell of their excrement was often overwhelming. Fecal dust and ammonia—a hazardous gas produced from decomposing manure—burned her eyes and made them water. The dust and gas set her throat on fire, making it difficult to breathe.

After about a year of getting hired at Expedition Acres LLC, Smith developed a permanent cough. Her voice became raspy and laughing would throw her into coughing fits, even outside of work.

“My lungs couldn’t take it,” Smith told Civil Eats. “I was coughing so hard I would throw up.”

Smith—who asked that her real name not be used in this story to protect her privacy—started working at Expedition Acres just a few years after the facility opened its doors as a concentrated animal feeding operation or CAFO, a factory farm with thousands of animals densely packed in barns with little to no access to the outdoors. Though newly built, Expedition Acres’ three barns lacked proper ventilation, Smith said.

The company did not educate workers in the importance of using personal protective equipment and managers repeatedly ignored complaints about high ammonia levels. After two years, Smith’s cough got so bad that she gave notice.

“I stopped coughing after I quit,” she said. “I haven’t had an issue since.”

Expedition Acres did not respond to a phone call or detailed questions from Civil Eats about ammonia levels and ventilation at its facility or whether the company provides protective gear to workers. Smith’s story is meanwhile just one example of the severe respiratory health burdens animal agriculture workers face at the tens of thousands of hog, chicken, and cow CAFOs in the United States. The workers, many of them immigrants, are exposed to high concentrations of toxic fumes at levels that likely far exceed recommended health limits, impeding their ability to breathe and leading to illnesses and chronic conditions such as bronchitis, asthma, lung disorders, even death, according to numerous studies.

CAFO contract growers—the farmers contracted by large corporations to house and feed chickens and hogs in CAFOs on their land—face similar hazards, as do the family members they employ. Despite such dangers, the people toiling inside factory-scale animal farms often stay silent—they’re afraid, sometimes unaware of the dangers, and face insurmountable obstacles to better conditions within the meat production system.

While CAFOs efficiently and speedily churn out low-cost meat, they produce mountains of waste and pollution that can pose significant risks to the environment and human health, especially for workers.

“The children often have asthma, the adults, too, but they say they have a cold. They don’t put it together with their employment issues,” said Leila Borrero Krouse, a Maryland-based organizer for CATA—the Farmworkers Support Committee. Borrero Krouse works with chicken CAFO workers who, she says, often downplay their illnesses. “They don’t like to shake the boat. They want to have a job, free housing, and support their family here and abroad.”

Despite a significant body of research documenting CAFOs’ adverse health impacts on workers’ respiratory systems and the continued growth of animal factory farms across the country, the health of animal agriculture workers has been ignored for decades, though their problems are systemic. CAFOs get a free pass from air emission regulations. CAFO owners often fail to offer proper training or protective equipment to workers. And the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rarely investigates workers’ respiratory illnesses or deaths.

Moreover, an increasingly popular corporate structure that organizes networks of investor-funded CAFOs and CAFO service companies into limited liability companies (LLCs) is making it even more difficult for workers and their advocates to decipher CAFO ownership, file lawsuits, and demand action on health and safety issues.

“The workers, the farmers, we’re all just cogs in the machine. We’re expendable resources,” said Craig Watts, a former poultry contract grower turned whistleblower. “To the industry . . . it’s all about how cheap can we do it. They don’t care if we get sick or die, they’ll find somebody else.”

CAFO Pollution Leads to Worker Illnesses, Deaths

Intensive animal production inside CAFOs has become the norm in the U.S over the past six decades, thanks to a growing demand for meat here and globally. And many of the giant barns, sheds, and corrals are built in low-income, minority communities, raising social and environmental justice concerns.

While CAFOs efficiently and speedily churn out low-cost meat, they produce mountains of waste and pollution that can pose significant risks to the environment and human health, especially for CAFO workers. As much as 1.4 billion tons of manure is produced every year in the U.S. by the 9.8 billion heads of livestock, dairy cows, and poultry.

Dusty cattle feedlot where hundreds of cows roam in bare dirt, kicking up dust all around.

The gases and particle matter that emanate from CAFO facilities and their manure storage areas are highly toxic. They include ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter (PM 10 and PM 2.5 fine particle pollution), organic dust such as animal dander and feces, endotoxins, allergens, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some workers are also exposed to the fumes of hazardous pesticides used to clean CAFO buildings. (In addition, CAFOs emit methane and nitrous oxide, which are linked to climate change and also indirectly impact human health.)

A significant, long-standing body of research has shown that people who work inside the giant enclosed barns and sheds and are regularly exposed to such gases face a bevy of impacts to their respiratory and neurological health. Those include respiratory diseases and syndromes like chronic bronchitis, mucous membrane inflammation syndrome, asthma-like syndrome, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and organic dust toxic syndrome and also accelerate yearly losses in lung function,. Some of these conditions present themselves in newly employed workers like Smith, who develop occupational asthma after a relatively short-term exposure, while others intensify after long term exposure in CAFO work environments.

CAFO emissions also cause the early death of some workers. Scientists estimate that animal agriculture is now responsible for 12,720 annual air quality–related deaths from particulate matter (though the estimate doesn’t say how many are workers and how many other area residents).

OSHA’s small farms rider is “a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. Corporations take advantage of these loopholes.”

The problems are worsening as the number of CAFOs in the U.S. has increased over the past decade. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are currently more than 21,000 CAFOs, though that number is likely a severe undercount, which means that hundreds of thousands of CAFO workers, as well as CAFO owner-operators and their family members are impacted by hazardous emissions.

Automation of feed and water distribution and ventilation mean just a handful of workers often tend to thousands of hogs or tens of thousands of chickens, making them exempt from OSHA enforcement because a rider attached to OSHA’s budget in 1976 excludes farms that employ 10 or fewer workers. Historically, the rider aimed to protect small farms from onerous government oversight. But today, said Robert Martin, director of Food System Policy at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, “It’s a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. Corporations take advantage of these loopholes.”

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What the Worker Who Developed Asthma Didn’t Know

Local residents had opposed the permit required to build Expedition Acres for months, afraid that 8,500 pigs housed in three large barns would pollute the area’s air and water. When they lost, the factory farm became one of about 500 CAFOs operating in Missouri, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Angela Smith didn’t know about these health impacts when she took her job.

Smith also didn’t know that Expedition Acres wasn’t just an ordinary industrial-sized farm owned by a farmer on contract with a meat processing company. Instead, it was associated with nearly 30 other CAFOs in the Midwest. All were under the umbrella of Illinois-based Carthage System and its associated LLC, Professional Swine Management, both founded by local swine veterinarians. Carthage’s model of creating many legal entities that purport to be family farms but are run by a single corporate management firm may allow it to avoid OSHA oversight of some barns.

OSHA inspectors view Expedition Acres LLC as an individual entity, not part of a larger corporate structure, the agency’s spokesman for the region told Civil Eats, meaning the other branches of in the Carthage model would not bear any responsibility for worker injuries or deaths that take place there.

“Workers who are employed through this system . . . are the ones who are going to have to bear the brunt of the consequences when something goes wrong,” said Loka Ashwood, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky who has studied the Carthage model.

Smith didn’t know she was part of this system. She also wasn’t aware of how dangerous CAFO work could be for her respiratory health. She applied for the job of swine production technician in Expedition Acres’ breeding department, a short drive from her hometown, where nearly 20 percent of the population lives under the poverty line. At the CAFO, she did the breeding and tended to the sows in the “wean room.”

“It was dirty, hard work, and stressful, but I enjoyed it,” said Smith.

However, Smith was also never informed of another crucial piece of information: In 2018, another breeding room worker at Expedition Acres was hospitalized for a respiratory system burn due to elevated ammonia levels. Thirteen employees were exposed, and OSHA cited Expedition Acres at the time with eight serious violations, according to the agency’s records. The violations included failure to communicate to workers how the presence or release of hazardous chemicals in the work area is monitored and what employees can do to protect themselves.

Piglets in a confinement operation where workers don't have access to ppe or other protective equipment.

The company was also cited for lacking a hazard communication program, failing to label hazardous chemicals and to provide safety data sheets for those chemicals, and failing to report the hospitalization to OSHA within 24 hours It reported the workers’ respiratory burn more than two weeks later. Expedition Acres paid a $30,000 penalty, reduced from $79,000 as part of a settlement.

Expedition Acres did not respond to detailed questions about what changes had been made in response to the OSHA violations.

Scott Allen, an OSHA spokesman, told Civil Eats that the penalty was reduced because Expedition Acres agreed to “a rapid abatement of all hazards and enhanced employee safety steps,” including hiring a full-time safety and health professional.

When Smith was hired, however, little seemed to have changed. Trainings were scant, she said. So was personal protective equipment and worker awareness of the risks. “They may have had masks of some sort somewhere around there, but I’ve never seen anyone wear anything,” Smith said. Managers also routinely ignored complaints from workers about high levels of ammonia, she said. And they didn’t believe that the ammonia had caused Smith’s breathing problems.

“Management would say, ‘It’s allergies,’” she said. “But I told them it’s not allergies . . . The ammonia. It was awful.”

Carthage System’s founders, Joe Connor and Bill Hollis (also partners in Professional Swine Management) were contacted on behalf of Expedition Acres because contact information for all three companies is identical in public documents. Neither responded to detailed questions from Civil Eats or to the allegation that the issues noted in the OSHA citations had not been addressed.

Documents filed with the Secretary of State’s office indicate the business registration for the Expedition Acres LLC has since been dissolved, though the facility itself still exists.

Air Quality Unchecked, Workers Unaware

When it comes to toxic emissions, CAFOs have been allowed to skirt regulations for decades. In 2005, the EPA made the lack of oversight official through a backroom agreement with the industry under which the agency agreed to refrain from enforcing key air pollution controls and public disclosure laws against CAFO owners who agreed to pay a small fine to fund a nationwide air monitoring study. The EPA said its goal was to gather data to establish methodologies to measure CAFO emissions to help animal farms comply with the Clean Air Act.

That process was supposed to end in 2010. But 17 years later, the CAFO emission methodologies have yet to be released and the industry continues to be exempt from air pollution enforcement and associated litigation. The EPA still has no air monitoring program for CAFOs. Over the past three years, the agency has released updated draft CAFO emission models, but officials say they don’t know when the process will be complete. And experts have said the air pollution data collected through the monitoring study is deeply flawed because it lacked adequate peer review and was based on a very small number of CAFO sites.

Environmental and public interest groups last year filed a legal petition asking the EPA to scratch the industry agreement and start enforcing federal laws to control CAFO air emissions. It’s one of several petitions related to CAFOs filed recently with the EPA. And earlier this summer, advocacy groups again sent a letter to the EPA demanding the agency protect communities from CAFOs’ harmful impacts. They cited President Biden’s Executive Orders on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad and on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities, which establish environmental justice and racial equity as administration priorities.

The petition and letter are but the latest salvos in a years-long battle to highlight the harms experienced by rural residents who live near CAFO operations, many of them people of color. In recent years, rural communities across the U.S. have pushed for more such regulations and moratoriums on new CAFO construction, arguing that pollution from confined operations harms the environment, public health, and people’s quality of life—though the health of workers is rarely included in such campaigns.

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Simultaneously, the industry is pushing legislators to pass the Livestock Regulatory Protection Act, which would exclude livestock emissions from Clean Air Act regulations. The legislation prohibits the EPA from issuing permits on emissions to industrial livestock operations for greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, or methane. A similar bill has been introduced in each Congress since 2009.

A 2018 study of Latin American immigrant swine confinement workers found that two-thirds of the workers interviewed did not perceive their jobs to be dangerous, though 28 percent self-reported occupational health problems, including coughing, nausea, nasal congestion, and sneezing.

While CAFOs skirt emission rules, workers on the ground have scarcely any safeguards from the hazardous air. Even CAFOs that have more than 10 employees and do fall under OSHA’s jurisdiction often don’t conduct necessary trainings—including offering them in languages that the workers understand—or distribute PPE, according to worker surveys by researchers and Civil Eats’ interviews with half a dozen workers across the nation.

“Workers are not aware of the dangers,” Gabriel, a swine worker at the Smithfield-owned Whitetail CAFO in Unionville, Missouri, told Civil Eats. (He said his managers don’t provide PPE and asked that his last name be left out of the story.) “Most of them have high school diplomas and don’t know much about respiratory illness,” he said.

A 2018 study of Latin American immigrant swine confinement workers in Missouri found that two-thirds of the workers interviewed did not perceive their jobs to be dangerous, though 28 percent self-reported occupational health problems, including coughing, nausea, nasal congestion, and sneezing. Some reported working 13 days straight and then having one day off. Many lacked health insurance and had not seen a doctor in more than a year.

Dr. Athena Ramos, the study’s principal author and a professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said the findings were not surprising. In another related study, Ramos found that among workers who’d been injured on the job all those who spoke English (about 20 percent) had received safety training, but about half the rest, who did not speak English, received no training at all. Other non-English speaking workers received training in English or through an unqualified interpreter.

The training “is basically a check the box for the employer. Yes, we’ve done it. But the workers themselves didn’t actually get anything or much out of that training,” Ramos said.

“There are long-term consequences to not using the types of PPE that are necessary in that job.”

Even when workers reported respiratory and chemical exposures in surveys, Ramos said, “most workers did not know what types of things they were exposed to . . . they couldn’t name the chemicals.” Similarly, many workers who have access to PPE—in one survey, more than 92 percent—did not use it. Workers told Ramos there was a wall with respirators and other PPE, however, “Nobody told them that they should use it, how to use it, or when to use it. So they don’t,” Ramos said. “They may not understand or may kind of downplay the fact that there are chronic health conditions that may develop. It’s not just a nuisance. There are long-term consequences to not using the types of PPE that are necessary in that job.”

The National Pork Producers Council explained by email that “worker health and safety are key priorities for all pig farmers.” The group pointed to a set of principles adopted by the industry roughly 15 years ago, which includes a commitment to employee education and training as “crucial in creating a safe and ethical workplace.” The council declined to comment on why many CAFOs fail to provide promised training and PPE to prevent worker sickness and injury. The council also did not comment on whether some corporate models allow farms to skirt responsibility for workers’ health and safety.

Even when workers do grasp the risks or notice elevated levels of toxic fumes or dust, speaking out may not be an option, Ramos said. Many workers choose to work at CAFOs because they lack work authorization and industrial farms are one of the few places that hire them without asking for “papers.” Workers may prefer to work at remote rural locations that aren’t subject to OSHA inspections so they can live under the radar and avoid immigration raids, Ramos said. And because it can be extremely difficult for undocumented workers to get work, they don’t dare speak up and risk losing their jobs.

“Even if they know something is hazardous or causing them harm, the likelihood of them speaking up about it is dependent on a lot of factors. Am I going to lose my job if I speak up? Are they going to report me? Am I going to be able to sustain my life or my family’s livelihood?” Ramos said. “You’re, in a sense, powerless.”

Some CAFO workers also keep quiet about hazardous emissions to protect their housing. Chicken workers often live with their families in employer-provided trailers or other types of housing next to the massive barns—but the trailers are available to them only as long as they are employed, said Leila Borrero Krouse at CATA.

Last year, Borrero Krouse said, several families of chicken workers were evicted in separate incidents in Maryland, a state with more than 500 CAFOs where poultry accounts for 60 percent of the gross agricultural income. One worker was fired after taking time off to drive a sick child to a doctor in another state. The farmer immediately disconnected the family’s water and electric service, forcing them to leave their home—a common tactic to evict workers’ families, she said.

“They work so hard, and then within a moment’s notice, they have to be gone off the property,” Borrero Krouse said. “They’re expendable, they have no job security.”

Living in trailers or houses next to the chicken barns also means the workers are exposed to hazardous fumes and flies 24 hours a day. Their spouses and children also breathe in the concentrated ammonia that blows out of the chicken houses via large exhaust fans.

One worker whom Borrero Krouse visited in Wicomico County, which has some of the highest number of CAFO operations in Maryland, would take his then 2-year-old into the chicken barns, leaving the toddler strapped into a car seat, breathing in toxic fumes, while he tended to the birds. The family had no access to childcare in the remote area where they lived, his wife was at work herself, and the worker faced an impossible choice about whether to protect his child’s health or keep his job and housing, Borrero Krouse said.

Smith, the former Expedition Acres worker, was in a less precarious position because she didn’t have to worry about such pressures. As an American citizen, she knew she would likely be able to find another job if she was fired after speaking up.

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For others, the choice is much more difficult. “The company cares more about the pigs than the workers,” said Gabriel, the Missouri animal agriculture worker, who added that managers require biosecurity measures, such as coveralls, and safety protocol in order to protect the pigs in contrast to the limited protective gear provided for workers. “There are many people who, out of fear, do not report anything.”

Contract Growers Also Exposed to Fumes, Lack PPE

Contract growers—who are entirely controlled by chicken corporations and work alone or alongside the hired laborers, sometimes with other family members—are just as vulnerable, said Watts, the former contract grower.

During more than two decades of raising broilers (chickens for meat), Watts says he and another laborer were exposed daily to high levels of ammonia and particulate matter, including dust from chicken feathers and feces. At first, Watts told Civil Eats, he shrugged off the risks: “When I was young, I was very stupid. I didn’t wear any protection.”

A worker inside a large chicken bar, where it's dark and dusty and the worker has no respiratory health protections.

But as time went on, he started having headaches and respiratory problems. And he developed allergies to chicken feathers and dust. “It was allergies just getting me up at night and I could hardly breathe,” he said.

Watts started wearing a dust mask. It eliminated some of the dust, but was useless when it came to filtering out ammonia. Eventually, he bought a half mask respirator with a filter and an ammonia cartridge. He wore the respirator to work daily, he said, even though a respirator “cuts your wind when you’re walking around picking up dead chickens all day.” He also offered a respirator to the laborer he had hired, but the man preferred to wear only dust masks.

Workers sent by Perdue Farms to retrieve chickens for processing sometimes also wore dust masks, Watts said, but never respirators—though they stirred up huge clouds of dust.

Watts also applied pyrethrin-based pesticides in his barns in between loads of chickens to control for darkling beetle, a ubiquitous pest in chicken barns. He wore full protective gear doing that, he said. Still, applying pesticides “wasn’t as bad as working with chickens because I was in and out within just a couple of minutes,” he said.

Watts eventually got fed up with the health hazards of his work and the chicken industry’s dishonesty. He quit. He has since transformed his farm into a mushroom growing operation. Six years out of the CAFO business, his allergies and breathing problems have finally cleared up.

“I realized,” said Watts, “you only get one set of lungs.”

Previously: The lack of OSHA oversight on smaller animal agriculture operations puts workers at risk of injury and death.

Next: Despite harms to workers, the federal government is incentivizing biogas. Those incentives may be deepening consolidation in the industry and making barns even more densely packed with animals. Read the full series here.

Gosia Wozniacka is a senior reporter at Civil Eats. A multilingual journalist with more than fifteen years of experience, Gosia is currently based in Oregon. Wozniacka worked for five years as a staff reporter for The Associated Press in Fresno, California, and then in Portland, Oregon. She wrote extensively about agriculture, water, and other environmental issues, farmworkers and immigration policy. Email her at gosia (at) civileats.com and follow her on Twitter @GosiaWozniacka. Read more >

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