Through rain, snow ... and anthrax?

A postal worker talks about the realities of sorting mail in the new age of bioterror.

Published October 26, 2001 7:59PM (EDT)

Max -- not his real name -- works 40 hours a week as an automation clerk at the U.S. Postal Service Processing and Distribution Center in Kalamazoo, Mich. He makes about $33,000 a year feeding mail into a machine called a delivery bar code sorter.

The plant sorts mail for delivery to post offices primarily in the southwest Michigan region, like Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit, but like other postal centers around the country, it sends mail all over the United States.

The whole country is on alert for anthrax powder attacks sent via mail. But Max says that inside the postal plant there's dust flying through the air all the time. The sorting machines, with their spinning parts, shave off tiny bits of paper from the millions of letters and bills. The ventilation pipes can become so caked with dust that it looks like they're in shadow.

It's like being on alert for dust in a dust cloud.

Since anthrax attacks started sickening postal workers, killing two in Washington, D.C., and encouraging a New York union to sue the Postal Service, the USPS has instituted some new safety measures to help protect employees. Precautions include optional gloves and masks. Also, the sorting machines are now being cleaned of all that dust, with vacuums instead of the traditional blowers that cleaned the machines by spewing the dust into the air.

Max talked to Salon about how his work environment has changed ... and hasn't.

What's the mood like where you work?

People are a little bit nervous. They've been complaining that not enough is getting done within the plant. But there is a real "it can't happen to us" kind of syndrome going on, which is a little bit disconcerting especially when you consider that it could very easily happen to us.

What was the reaction at the post office to the first round of anthrax attacks?

One day last week, somebody suggested maybe we can use dust masks. But our supervisor actually told us that because of OSHA regulations they were not able to distribute dust masks to us without us being properly trained. For liability reasons -- in case the mask is contaminated and somebody takes it off wrong.

I was standing right there when he said it, and my jaw dropped. They have to train us how to use paper filter masks! I found that kind of amusing, actually.

What about since the deaths of two postal workers in Washington were reported? What safety precautions have you been told to take since then?

No safety meeting of any kind took place this week. I kept hearing this rumor floating around that there was going to be a meeting. It did surprise me a little bit, because here I was thinking, "Oh gee, we're going to get some information," but no dice.

Shortly after postal employees started being found with anthrax, we did have one safety meeting, but it was more along the lines of "they found some anthrax in other facilities, so be careful." I did see a couple of fliers on the walls from our union stating what kinds of protections and practices the postal service is considering.

Have you been told to do anything differently?

We have been told a couple of things. Most of this was in the written form of fliers that I read yesterday. Wash your hands every couple of hours. There are filter masks and rubber gloves available. They have changed their point of view on the filter masks.

Do people wear the gloves?

Some people do.

Do you?

No, I don't. The reason why is that it's very, very easy for those gloves to interfere with what I'm doing, which is picking up larger handfuls of mail and putting them in the machines. The plastic could get caught in the rotating machine parts.

Before the attacks happened on Sept. 11, management would actually discourage people from wearing gloves on the machines simply because of that -- more than the glove could get caught.

Do you wear a mask?

No. I probably should. But the masks that I'm talking about -- it's not anything that has any kind of a seal, it's just a paper dust mask. There really isn't much that can be done other than actually wearing a cartridge mask -- that's the mask that has the cartridge in it that filters out pathogens from the air.

For the cutaneous anthrax, that's no protection at all. And short of wearing a biosuit to work, there really isn't much that we can do to completely protect ourselves. About the only thing that would be really beneficial would be to irradiate the mail. The Postal Service is thinking about irradiating the mail, similar to what is done with food, but I haven't heard anything official from any of my supervisors. We think that's going to happen, but we don't know when.

The postal engineering office, from what I've been hearing and reading, they're trying to figure out how to make the irradiation device smaller so it could be put in each of these individual sorting machines. That's really the only sure way to protect everyone, and even then something might slip through.

But our union president doesn't know when we're going to get those, or really if we're going to be getting them anytime soon. The impression I'm getting is that management is trying to comfort the employees and reassure them, without actually doing much of anything.

How do you feel about what's going on?

I deserve hazard pay.

I'm only about half kidding, really. Because if this does spread throughout the country and other postal facilities start getting affected by this and there's enough of them, that's not too far-fetched of a statement to make, because it is becoming a hazardous job now.

What oversight do you actually have of the mail?

The mail comes in a tray that's about 2 and a half feet long. There can be anywhere between two and 500 pieces of mail in it. There really isn't an opportunity for those of us on the machines to visibly inspect each piece of mail.

We're aware that something could happen, but there isn't anything that we could actually do to prevent it. For all I know I could have sent a contaminated envelope through one of those machines already, and not even know it. That in itself is a little scary.

Where do you think the system is most vulnerable?

There's multiple points that one of these letters can get caught and torn open, which is really the primary danger. One of these envelopes with the spores in it could get torn open and contaminate the other mail.

Just about every day that I run those machines several envelopes get torn up just because of the nature of the machines. It would be very, very easy to contaminate a lot of mail. Given the fact that I work on the machines, and they do tear up, so I'm worried.

But the chance of any one specific piece of mail getting caught in the machine is low. One thing the Postal Service could do is put more stringent types of requirements on what types of envelopes could be automated through those machines. Publishers Clearinghouse-size envelopes -- big envelopes -- that's what causes the machines to jam up.

There are a couple of people in the plant that their job is to put together mail that's been torn open by the machines, and those are the people who are really at the highest risk because they're handling mail that's already been opened. The next most vulnerable people are the ones that would be handling unopened letters that can't be sorted by the machines, because they have to handle every individual piece of mail.

Why do you think that more isn't being done to protect you?

Because the affected postal facilities have all been out on the East Coast. That might be the reason that more isn't being done right now in our facility, but it's really more of an excuse than a reason.

If I address a letter to Albuquerque, N.M., it could go through two or even three facilities before it gets to the address that you write on the outside of the envelope. And we do handle some mail that's on its way to the East Coast, so the potential is there for something to happen.

Why won't you use your real name?

When I got the job a few years ago, I was required to sign a form, basically saying that I won't say anything bad about the Postal Service.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Katharine Mieszkowski

Related Topics ------------------------------------------