Postal Service beefs up instruction on handling suspicious mail

This fall the U.S. Postal Service plans to debut a Web-based program to train managers and frontline employees on handling suspicious mail, an agency official said. The move was announced in a response to recent recommendations from the Government Accountability Office.

The online training program will be complete by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 and, along with a video and paper-based instructions, will provide employees with advice on how to deal with a "greater variety of suspicious mail scenarios," said Thomas Day, senior vice president of government relations for the Postal Service. GAO recently reported that enhanced training would help mailroom employees make better decisions on how to treat packages that could pose security threats.

USPS should also clarify its guidelines for situations where it isn't obvious whether a piece of mail is a routine package carrying hazardous substances, or a suspicious package containing a bomb, radiological substance, or biological or chemical agent meant to do harm, the watchdog agency reported (GAO-05-716). The agency needs more specific instructions for notifying employees and union officials of security breaches, the auditors added. GAO based its recommendations on an analysis of how employees at a Greenville, S.C., airmail facility reacted to the midnight discovery of an envelope marked: "Caution: Ricin Poison" in October 2003. Ricin is a biotoxin derived from castor beans and can kill people within 36 to 72 hours of exposure.

In that case, Greenville employees initially treated the package like a routine shipment of a hazardous substance because it contained a warning label. Employees took some precautions, including moving the envelope to a secluded room and double-bagging it. But it took half a day for the facility manager to notify postal inspectors of the package, which ended up containing a metal vial that did test positive for ricin.

The incident ended without any confirmed cases of ricin exposure to workers. But it illustrated that employees did not follow all the procedures in place for handling suspicious packages, GAO reported.

"A lack of consistency and clarity in the guidance may have been a contributing factor," GAO stated. Guidelines have since been improved, the auditors noted. But they still do not address the handling of envelopes that appear routine in some ways but dangerous in others.

The incident also raised questions about lines of communication, according to GAO. For instance, local union officials weren't notified for a week, the auditors said.

GAO recommended that the Postal Service provide explicit guidelines for informing employees and union officials of potential health and safety hazards. The agency should also specify how soon inspectors should be notified after the discovery of a suspicious item, the report said.

"The Postal Service continuously strives to refine and strengthen our responsive actions regarding any mail that is suspected of having the potential to cause harm to our employees or others, and therefore [we] appreciate any suggestions concerning improvements we can make to our guidance and training," Day wrote in his response to the report.

Agency officials agree with most of GAO's recommendations, Day said, but do not plan to provide a timeline for notifying inspectors, because such instruction would be too restrictive.

"To the extent the recommendations can be read to require the Postal Service to issue guidance that is unduly specific or detailed, the Postal Service disagrees with that approach," Day stated. "Keeping all potential variations in mind, it is simply not possible to design a detailed set of specific, hard and fast rules that will help our employees respond to all potential situations and also give them the flexibility necessary to react to events as they occur and evolve."

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