Book Review

by David B. Torrey, WCJ
Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry
Reprinted with permission.


Eyal Press, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2021).

In this book, the author examines a series of occupations that he says undertake “dirty work,” that is, work which society needs but which is often demoralizing; in some instances, looked down upon; and which can be mentally and physically dangerous.

Among the fields of work he treats are prison guards, drone operators, slaughterhouse workers, and laborers in mineral extraction.

The pandemic, notably, revealed that many of these workers, like correctional officers and those in the meat processing industry, were and are deemed “essential.”  They undertook their difficult work while many middle-class and white-collar elites labored safely from their home offices.

Many such workers, the author posits, sustain “moral injury.”  His examples in this respect include guards who witness brutality but find themselves unable to stop the same; and drone operators (often young enlisted personnel) horrified that their jobs lead to the killing of innocent people.

Discussing this latter phenomenon, the author points out that many drone operators, laboring back in the U.S., actually see more people killed than do conventional ground troops.  One such worker (thoroughly profiled) is from Lebanon, PA, giving the Pennsylvania reader a local connection.  After three years of Air Force service, she essentially broke down and came back home to struggle with her feelings.

The author’s theme throughout is that “layers of complicity” exist in this partition of labor.  Most of society find dirty work jobs essential, but most really do not want to think about the issue and the often-unpleasant tasks that they must perform.  But myriad abuses exist in dirty work, the labor is often performed by economically leveraged individuals, and the aloofness of society to the situation reveals a striking example of societal inequality.  He also refers to societal “moral hazard”: if unpleasant work can be hidden away and out of the minds of most, society will be more likely to accept the same and not address the injustice and inequality attendant to it.

For the workers’ compensation specialist, the occupational profiles of the workers depicted is perhaps the most intriguing.  Indeed, the book is replete with health and safety references and instances, particularly in the slaughterhouse context, where workers’ compensation claims – typically for repetitive motion injuries – seem unfairly denied.

The author further indicates that the occupational health literature surrounding prison guards is expansive (divorce, depression, substance abuse, and suicide are said to be significant issues), and he portrays more than one guard who has been left with PTSD.  The chapter on correctional officers is, indeed, a tour de force on the lives of guards and how they themselves become victims of the system.

The portion of the book with the most reference to work injuries is that reviewing the lives of workers in beef, hog, and chicken processing plants. Certainly, most of us are aware of the repetitive motion injuries that “line workers” sustain in these fields, and the author profiles a number of injury victims.  The author commences his discussion with a retrospective on Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the novel which, in the early part of the last century, sensationalized the dangerous conditions of slaughterhouse workplaces.  The author also profiles an OSHA investigation at a Pennsylvania slaughterhouse called Maid-Rite (Pages 203-04). In this discussion, again, the author inquires: who bears more responsibility for the many dangers and other injustices of such work – is it workers who could purportedly just quit, if they desired; or is it in fact consumers who benefit and who are willing to look the other way?

Editor’s Note: The best professional review of this important book appeared in August 2021 in the New York TimesSee  For a Youtube interview of the author, see