Five months pregnant, Yvonne* was cutting poultry on a conveyor belt when she began to feel ill.
“I went to the locker room and took some painkillers. Then I started having some weird fluid loss,” she says. She was rushed to hospital where she was diagnosed with an infection and had to go on leave.
Yvonne, who works for the world’s biggest meat company, JBS, in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, is in her third pregnancy and says she is losing weight because she can’t eat properly while at work. For hygiene reasons, she was not allowed to eat on the territory of the meat processing plant, not even in the dressing room.
“If you count it, you have 10 minutes off – you won’t be able to take off all your clothes and go out to eat and then come back. It’s impossible,” she says.
Between 2016 and 2019, more than 2,600 pregnant women working in meat plants were reported as suffering from maternal disorders, including infections, bleeding and excessive vomiting, according to Brazil’s National Social Security Institute (INSS).
The excess risk of maternal disorders for the pig and poultry sectors, where most women work, was at least twice as high as for all other employment sectors in Brazil between 2000 and 2016, according to data compiled from the labor prosecutors who are now arguing for safer working conditions.
About 220,000 women work in the meat sector in the country.
Potential risks for pregnant women can include small leaks of ammonia (a gas used in the refrigeration system), inappropriate postures at workplaces, exposure to cold temperatures and viruses or bacteria present in animal meat, says Dr Roberto Ruiz, a health consultant in Contac, a federation of food industry workers’ unions.
Carina Calife, a professor at the Faculty of Medical Sciences of Santa Casa de São Paulo, says: “Pregnant women are more sensitive to almost everything.” In addition to the discomfort caused by very cold temperatures, constant noise can worsen nausea and vertigo, she says . Spending a lot of time in an upright position can also lead to thrombosis and embolism.
Another concern is the risk of urinary tract infections, Calife says. Pregnant women experience the urge to urinate more frequently as the expanding uterus puts pressure on the bladder. But the potential lack of toilets near workplaces and the required use of multiple protective garments may discourage women from using them.
“One of the main causes of preterm birth and neonatal intensive care is urinary tract infections,” she adds.
Until a few weeks before her “scare,” Ivonne and other pregnant women were on leave from their jobs on the production lines of two JBS factories.
The court issued an injunction against their union in late March, ordering pregnant employees without full Covid-19 vaccinations or working in jobs exposed to harmful agents to be placed on leave.
JBS appealed the decision and, due to a change in health department protocols, the women returned to work in April. “But the part that says pregnant women can’t work in a place with harmful, dangerous and painful agents has been upheld,” said Samuel Remor, a lawyer for the union.
Remor says pregnant women should avoid activities that require intense repetitive motions, such as a belt for cutting poultry. Yvonne was there when she got sick. “It’s a cold place, with noise from above [recommended] limit,” he says. Calife agrees: “Ideally, these women should spend their pregnancy in an administrative environment.”
Meat companies have historically argued that their activities should not be classified as “unhealthy”. “They want to avoid additional costs [such as hazard pay],” says labor attorney Lincoln Cordeiro.
Cordeiro, who heads a group of prosecutors specializing in meat processing plants, wants a reduction in the working week – currently 44 hours – to stop what he describes as “alarming levels of illness due to repetitive movements”.
This applies especially to pregnant employees. “Shorter working days would dramatically reduce exposure to any risk inherent in the job, thereby providing greater safety for employees and unborn children, but also for employers,” he says.
JBS says it does not comment on ongoing lawsuits, “but emphasizes that all pregnant employees who have returned to work at the Forquilhinha and Nova Veneza units and who previously worked in environments with temperature variations, for example, have been reassigned to other activities’.
The company also says it has invested more than £50m “in health and safety measures, systems and processes across all its facilities”.
The Brazilian Animal Protein Association (ABPA), which represents the poultry and pig industries, disputes the possible link between maternal diseases and the slaughterhouse environment.
Abiec, the Brazilian association of beef exporters, declined to comment on the companies’ “internal procedures”.
Brazil is producing increasing amounts of meat – exports were worth a record $17bn (£14bn) in 2020, with chicken exports alone worth $900m in May – but there are concerns about deforestation and working conditions.
* Names have been changed to protect identity
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