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Agencies urged to update guidelines for telling workers of anthrax threats

Federal officials must develop more thorough guidelines for telling employees-especially postal workers-about possible anthrax contamination, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

GAO said the Postal Service's current guidelines, as well as those developed by the General Services Administration and the National Response Team are "too general" and will not improve outreach to employees. The National Response Team is a 16-agency task force charged with developing biohazard response plans.

In the report (GAO-03-316), GAO also suggested that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration revise hazard communications rules and require employers to more rapidly disclose information to employees during an emergency.

GAO made the recommendations after an investigation of the Postal Service's handling of anthrax contamination at its mail processing plant in Wallingford, Conn. Four mail-sorting machines in the facility tested positive for anthrax in December 2001. More than 3 million anthrax spores were found on one machine alone. At the time, public health officials considered between exposure to between 8,000 and 10,000 spores to be harmful.

Unlike a postal facility in Northeast Washington, where two employees died, no Connecticut employees became sick or died.

After getting the positive test results, Wallingford facility managers met with workers and told them that there were "trace" amounts of anthrax in the building. However, GAO found that postal managers received the test results at least two days before the meeting.

"According to the Postal Service, the additional time was needed to obtain advice from public health officials about the meaning of the results, particularly the result indicating the presence of about 3 million spores in a sample collected from one mail-sorting machine," the report said. Further, area managers said they were waiting for the results to be validated.

Postal Service guidance states that results cannot be released until they are confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or a state public health laboratory.

Postal Service managers did not release the full test results until September 2002, after an OSHA investigation. "The Postal Service's decision not to release the quantitative test results in December 2001 appears to have been consistent with its guidelines because the sampling methods used could not be validated, as required," GAO found.

However, the decision violated OSHA rules because employees had asked to see the results. In January 2002, the president of the Greater Connecticut Area Local American Postal Workers Union requested copies of all test results and supporting documents for anthrax testing done at the facility. The Postal Service provided a summary list of tests performed and the results. No actual laboratory reports were provided.

OSHA does not have a specific rule about anthrax exposure. But for any contamination, OSHA requires employers to turn over all exposure-related test results when asked by an employee or a designated representative. OSHA did not issue the Postal Service a citation.

As it seeks to rebuild trust with workers following the anthrax attacks, the Postal Service should "require prompt communication of test results," the GAO report said.

Postal Service officials did not return calls in time for this story, but in a written response to the GAO agreed with its recommendations.