A Growing Workplace Danger
(This article first appeared in the November-December 2017 issue of the American Postal Worker magazine)
By Industrial Relations Director Vance Zimmerman
In 2001, Anthrax-laden letters were sent through the mail sickening 22 Americans, including nine postal workers. Five died, including two APWU brothers – Joseph P. Curseen Jr. and Thomas L. Morris – at the Brentwood Mail Processing Center in Washington, D.C., that would later be named in their honor.
This is a reminder that we all need to be extremely aware of the dangers we face at work. Maybe you are less careful when it comes to spills. Maybe you are one of the tens of thousands of new employees working for the Postal Service since 2001, and are not aware of the history and protocols put into place. Deadly agents are illegally sent through the mail every day – and you need to be prepared in case you come across a powder or other spill.
We face an opioid addiction crisis. The disease affects addicts, their families, friends and co-workers. Overdose deaths are at all-time highs and they happen to those who are not only users, but also first responders, caregivers and everyday people.
Many of the overdoses are due to powerful synthetic opioids Fentanyl, Carfentanil and their derivatives. These drugs are much stronger than heroin and easily obtained. The substances enter the U.S. by international mail, are repackaged as pills or powder, and re-shipped all over the country via first-class, priority and express mail.
These chemicals are extremely dangerous and should not be taken lightly. As one law enforcement officer said when discussing 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of chemicals that were sent through the mail and intercepted, “There was enough there to kill millions of Americans.”
My goal is not to scare you. It is to make you aware, observant and to protect yourselves.
The Postal Service has established procedures in the case of suspicious mail, unknown powders or sub-stances. You need to know the procedures and follow them! The following is taken directly from a USPS handout about suspicious mail:
- “Leave the piece of mail or substance where it was found. Do not disturb it.
- “Clear all employees from the immediate area where the piece of mail or substance is located. Prevent others from entering the area.
- “Notify a supervisor or manager immediately. If a supervisor or manager is not available, contact the Postal Inspection Service.
- “Wash hands and exposed skin with soap and water.”
At this point, management has a checklist:
- Don’t clean up the substance.
- Keep people away.
- Shut down mail processing in the immediate area.
- Shut down the HVAC systems to prevent any spread.
Do not put yourself at risk! You must protect yourself! If you report a spill and management does not follow proper protocol, complete a 1767 Form and contact your steward. They should contact your Regional Safety and Health Representative. Find yours at apwu.org/issues/regional-sh-representatives.
You are allowed to wear nitrile gloves at work, USPS will provide them. Management Instruction EL-2009-4 explains the glove policy. This will help prevent exposure to any substances through your skin. Wash your hands at work and before you go home. Monitor how you feel. If you begin to feel strange, let your supervisors know – tell a co-worker to get help.
Symptoms for these drugs include weak muscles, dizziness, confusion, extreme sleepiness, pinpoint sized pupils, drop in blood pressure, profound slowing of heart beat and bluish tint to your nails and lips.
Your Industrial Relations Department has met with the Postal Service and is working to ensure this threat is taken seriously and an appropriate action plan to protect all is developed.