KANSAS CITY, Mo. – I’ll bet that for every meat and poultry plant in the US, there are at least several employees out on the floor who have been branded by their peers as “unfriendly” or “indifferent.” Such folks usually work hard with a steady gaze toward their task and seldom speak or respond to others. You might say, “Good morning” to this person sometimes while heading out onto the floor only to be met with stone-cold silence as if you were invisible.

Seeing that I was born with a 50 percent hearing loss in both ears, it’s easy for me to spot hard-of-hearing folks. Instead of seeing ear doctors to try and correct this situation, many hearing-impaired people choose to just grin and bear it. In the processing industry, hearing loss can be a job hazard albeit a preventable one with the use of ear protection, which is provided to all workers and visitors to plants.

It’s easy to spot those who can’t hear well while visiting production plants throughout the US. I see their eyes strain as they struggle to understand what I’ve said above the plant noise. Sometimes their necks crane and heads tilt towards me in an attempt to better hear what’s being said, or I get the occasional “what did you say? — or a response that makes no sense regarding what I said to them — or sometimes just an embarrassed chuckle because they’re too shy and embarrassed to admit they didn’t hear what I said.

No doubt, there are some folks out there who really are unfriendly or indifferent — but my guess is that most of your colleagues who are labeled as such just can’t clearly hear what you’re saying. Voices come to them in muffled tones and words are difficult to distinguish from one another. What’s more, some of these folks may also suffer from tinnitus — constant ringing in the ears, which grows louder as they try to hear what’s being said. While in high school, I Iost track of how many times I was sent to the counselor’s office being accused of not paying attention, but the problem was….. I couldn’t hear. I should have had hearing aids back in the 1960s, but my folks didn’t have the money to buy them plus you don’t see many teenagers with hearing aids….it just isn’t cool.

So, the next time you see someone who has been labeled as “unfriendly” or “indifferent” out on the floor, approach him or her and speak loudly and directly towards them as you greet them. I’ll bet you’ll get a response from him or her this time — and a relieved and friendly one at that. Hard-of-hearing folks also tend to be blessed (or cursed) with an intense sense of concentration so don’t be shy to speak loudly while communicating with them.

If you don’t have a hearing problem, consider yourself blessed. But if you oftentimes have difficulty understanding others, see an ear doctor sooner than later to see if you do have a hearing problem -- and if so, what can be done to correct it.

As for the younger folks just starting their career in meat and poultry production, take wearing your ear plugs very seriously while out on the floor. It won’t take too many shifts of being exposed to the high-pitch whine of machinery, the loud crack of dropping pallets, the booming pounding of presses, the screeching of lift-truck brakes, the whirring of conveyor belts, etc., to do damage. And here’s hoping every company encourages their employees to get their hearing checked on a regular basis.

Once you lose your hearing, you might be lucky to improve it through hearing aids — but you can’t undo the damage already done.