Postal Clerks: Sorting it Out
After a spate of disgruntled employees attacked their coworkers, post offices gained a reputation for violence. But postal clerks are much more prone to mundane dangers -- such as back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, and paper dust.
A spate of workplace shootings by disgruntled postal workers in the 1980s and '90s resulted in a new phrase being added to the American lexicon: "going postal."
"I think Webster was a little bit unfair to include 'going postal' in the dictionary," says Tom Andrew, a letter carrier for 15 years in a Chicago suburb. "Let's face it, you've got loose cannons in every industry."
The rash of well-publicized shootings did tarnish the image of the postal workplace in the eyes of the public. But while the numbers are shocking -- from 1985 to early 1998, 35 postal employees were killed by their co-workers -- the job doesn't even make the top 10 list for workplace violence, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Like other employees, post office workers face a higher threat of robbery while at work than of violence from a co-worker. Postal employees also face myriad health hazards every day -- including job stress, repetitive strain injuries, and respiratory problems -- that are less likely to be covered in a television expose.
"I just want to do my job without hurting"
Postal clerks work inside the post office, where they help customers at the front counters and sort mail on high-speed conveyor belts in the back rooms. Besides having to put up with grumpy customers, clerks often suffer from boredom caused by assembly-line work and injuries from sorting and lifting heavy stacks of mail. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in fact, reports more than 56,000 injuries among postal service workers annually, at a cost in workers compensation of more than $500 million. Among the job risks they face:
- Muscle and skeletal disorders. Unfortunately, the machinery designed to make sorting mail faster and easier has created its own set of problems. NIOSH investigators have identified excessive heavy lifting and several ergonomic hazards -- design features that tax or endanger the human body excessively -- associated with the Postal Service's automated mail-processing equipment. The agency warns that these hazards put employees at potential risk for crippling low back problems as well as musculoskeletal disorders of the upper body; other NIOSH studies have found that machine-paced postal workers reported a higher incidence of fatigue, blurred vision, and neck, arm, or hand complaints.
In congressional testimony, Corey Thompson of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) remarked that in his hundreds of telephone calls with union members, "a large percentage of injured workers provided the following unsolicited comment: 'I just want to be able to do my job without hurting.'" The APWU has called for better employee training on how to recognize and report repetitive motion injuries.
The automated mail-processing machines were introduced in part to combat carpal tunnel syndrome, a disease affecting the nerve in the wrist that had long plagued workers sorting by hand. But Bob Williamson, president of the San Francisco chapter of the APWU, says that constantly lifting, bending, and pushing stacks of mail through the machines is equally hard on the body. "Now," he says, "we have fewer carpal tunnel injuries, but a lot more cases of tendinitis, shoulder and arm problems, and back problems." Employees are also developing foot and leg injuries from prolonged standing, he says.
The best way to avoid such strain, Williamson says, is to rotate positions frequently in order to cut down on hours of repetitive work. In San Francisco, where hundreds of postal workers have been put on medical restriction because of injuries incurred on these machines, Williamson says simply rotating workers into different jobs throughout the day has cut down on injuries. Floor mats, lifting devices and carts also lessen the strain on workers.
- Job stress. NIOSH investigators have found that working on the postal service's machine-paced sorting belts can cause considerable stress. So can layoffs, dealing with the public, authoritarian bosses, and postal rooms woefully overcrowded with equipment, according to Web sites for discontented postal workers.
The postal service stepped up its studies on job stress after angry postal employees began lashing out at co-workers and bosses in the 1980s. The profile of the employee most likely to resort to violence, researchers found, fit profiles from other workplace violence studies: a white male between the ages of 35 and 45, chronically disgruntled, and a loner who doesn't react well to criticism. Since some of the employees who resorted to violence had complained repeatedly about hypercritical bosses, the post office now puts supervisors through a rigorous management training program. In addition, more counselors have been hired by the post office to help employees with stress and psychological issues, Williamson says. In all industries, work-related homicides decreased over 50 percent from 1,080 in 1994 to 516 in 2006, the lowest annual total ever reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Anthrax. As if there were not enough stress on the job, in October 2001, two postal employees died after inhaling Antrhax sent through the mail at the Brentwood facility in Washington, DC. The perpetrator of that crime was never caught, and postal workers continue to work in fear of another attack. The CDC issued safety guidelines for postal workers following the attacks, which recommend the use of protective gloves by those handling the mail and the use of respirators by those working with machinery (like electronic sorters) that can generate aerosolized particles.
- Respiratory problems. If sorting mail doesn't seem a likely cause of allergies and other breathing disorders, think paper dust. The high-speed equipment used to sort mail produces a very fine paper dust that can cause respiratory problems, according to Williamson. "There's no federal safety standard on it, so it's a real problem," he says. "We've had people who have developed occupational asthma from breathing the fine dust."
But this dust -- and any respiratory problems that result from it -- could be eliminated through diligent cleaning, says occupational health experts. Williamson's advice: vacuum and wipe down the machines every day rather than resorting to the quicker method of blowing the dust off the machines and into the air. As a case in point, he describes a post office in San Francisco: "The fixtures toward the ceiling are just covered with a thick greasy dust. In the last couple of weeks, they were doing some work on the roof, and during the heavy pounding, the dust came down like a snowstorm."
American Postal Workers Union (APWU)
The world's largest postal union, this group represents 220,000 United States Postal Service employees and retirees and nearly 2,000 private sector mail workers.
National Association of Letter Carriers of the U.S.A. (NALC)
This association provides information and collective bargaining for primarily the letter-carrier segment of the postal service. Its 300,000 active and retired members represent mainly urban carriers.
U.S. Postal Service
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Established in 1970, NIOSH is a federal research agency that makes recommendations to help employers prevent job-related injuries and illnesses.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
Although it has no direct jurisdiction over federal agencies, OSHA develops and enforces safety and health regulations in the workplace, and federal agencies' standards must be consistent with OSHA's.
Zwerling C, Sprince NL, Ryan J, Jones MP. Occupational injuries: comparing the rates of male and female postal workers. Am J Epidemiol. 1993 Jul 1;138(1):46-55. U.S. Department of Labor, Frequently Asked Questions,
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fatal occupational injuries by industry and event or exposure, All United States, 2005.
Department of Labor. Federal Injury and Illness Statistics for Fiscal Year 2005 (Final).
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Workplace Violence Prevention Strategies and Research. September 2006.
CDC. Interim Recommendations for Protecting Workers from Exposure to Bacillus anthracis in Work Sites Where Mail Is Handled or Processed. October 31, 2001.
Milloy, Courtland, Anthrax mystery and misery linger for postal workers, Washington Post, October 25, 2006.