Postal security plan would evacuate employees, close mail facilities

Mail-handling centers would immediately shut down and employees would be evacuated at the first sign of a biohazard under a new security plan being developed by the Postal Service.

Still in the formative stages, the new protocol would remove all local discretion from the process. As soon as a biohazard such as anthrax is detected in a mail processing plant, the facility will be closed, workers will be evacuated and decontaminated, and law enforcement officials and emergency responders will be called to the scene.

The new security procedures, however, depend upon the Postal Service's installment of biohazard detection equipment in its 280 mail processing plants. Currently, the agency is testing the equipment at a facility in Baltimore. There are plans to roll out the system to 14 facilities during the summer, but it could be upwards of 18 months before the system is deployed nationwide. The equipment manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, wants protection from liability if a deadly substance makes its way into the mail stream. Only Congress, not the Postal Service, can grant such protection.

The new procedures are a direct response to the anthrax attacks that killed two postal workers and paralyzed the mail system in October 2001. Agency officials came under fire from employees and others for failing to shut down a Washington processing plant after anthrax-tainted letters were discovered on Capitol Hill. The letters were processed at the Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. Processing and Distribution Center, formerly known as the Brentwood postal facility. Curseen and Morris were exposed to and died from anthrax and several others became sick. To this day, Postal Service employees harbor deep resentment toward the plant's managers and headquarters officials. Many believe that they were left in harm's way for too long.

"We've learned a lot since October 2001," Thomas Day, vice president of engineering for the agency, told a group of Postal Service employees Wednesday. "If we had this system in place in 2001, we would have shut down the facility and decontaminated people."

Day was meeting with the group of employees, called Brentwood Exposed, for the first time. In fact, he is the first Postal Service executive to meet with the group. Formed shortly after the anthrax attacks, Brentwood Exposed is a support group for employees. But the group has also been a thorn in management's side. Many of its members have been calling on postal executives to adopt more stringent safety protocols and hold local managers more accountable for alleged violations in procedures.

The group is considering legal action against the agency for what many members perceive as blatant disregard for its employees' health during the October 2001 anthrax attacks.

During Day's three-plus hour meeting with the group, a lot of that distrust and anger was on display. Several employees, recalling the anthrax-related events, grilled Day about who knew what, when they knew it and why the facility wasn't shut down earlier. Regardless of Day's response, employees refused to believe that management acted responsibly.

Other employees were skeptical that the new safety plan will adequately protect workers, especially those who handle mail before it reaches the detection equipment, which will be located on automated sorting machines.

Day acknowledged that there isn't a 100 percent failsafe system, but added that the detection equipment being deployed is the most sophisticated technology currently available. In Baltimore, the equipment has passed every test.

Dena Briscoe, head of Brentwood Exposed, suggested that Day and other Postal Service executives improve communications and outreach to employees. Furthermore, she said, employees need to be assured that safety is a top priority. She said managers at the facility where she now works in suburban Maryland, for instance, have not shared written evacuation plans with employees.

"People have fears about walking back into [the Curseen and Morris facility] when managers at their current sites aren't showing proper care," she said. Curseen and Morris employees are working in other Washington-area facilities until the plant reopens later this year. It's been closed since October 2001 while the agency decontaminated it.

Day said he would relay employees' concerns to top agency officials and area managers. Regarding the new safety protocols, he said, "There is no way I'm letting this system go out nationwide without written evacuation plans." He added that plant managers will be required to rehearse evacuations as well.