Best Practices for Safe Mail Handling

With the anthrax mailings of 2001, federal agencies realized their mail centers may be the first point of attack by terrorists, either domestic or foreign. They cannot assume these attacks will never be repeated and, along with employers, must take the appropriate actions to mitigate risk. Mail centers process hundreds of billions of pieces of mail each year without incident; nevertheless, the workers must prepare for a worst-case scenario. Threats can never be completely eliminated. For that reason, mail center staff should evaluate the risks to determine security measures that need to be implemented.

This report contains suggested information on mail center operations that mail center staff can use to meet their needs. The report can assist security managers in establishing the best procedures for safe mail handling in their operations across the nation. Although suggestions provided are applicable for many situations involving security threats, they are intended only as guidance. This document represents a compilation of information already available from open sources, such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC), General Services Administration (GSA), and Postal Service websites, and other publications. The document also addresses dangerous mail handling and recommends preventive measures that agencies may implement to handle and deliver mail safely to their personnel.

Safe mail handling covers a broad spectrum, and various approaches can be taken to provide security. There is no “one size fits all” solution for safe mail handling. Each operation must incorporate security measures that best mitigate the risk associated with each unique facility.

Assessing Risk in the Mailroom

Assuming a comprehensive risk assessment has been completed on the facility in which the mail handling operations are housed and appropriate mitigating security measures have been established or identified for future implementation, the primary determinant for deciding safe mail handling requirements is a risk assessment on the mail handling operations themselves. This risk assessment should focus on the mail handling facility (room, area, etc.) and the processes and operations governing the handling of mail. The assessment should include the jobs, tasks, and personnel that would most likely be jeopardized if a suspicious or dangerous envelope or package entered the mail handling facility or the agency’s workplace.

All mail handling facilities have different risk levels. Guidance put forth in this document should be used, as appropriate, for the facility’s mail handling risk level. Each facility should rely on their security professionals to identify the most effective approach to reduce vulnerabilities, deter threats, and minimize the consequences of an incident.

Many measures can be implemented immediately. Others require time and effort. Primary consideration should be given to the business’s mission or the mission of other tenants that may make the facility a prime target. The risk assessment of the overall facility and mail handling operations should include the adequacy of state and local governments’ response capabilities.

Streamlining Operations

The first and best practice to minimize risk and exposure to personnel and the public is centralizing the mail handling/processing operation at a separate location. Centralization minimizes risk, reduces cost, and increases efficiency and effectiveness. It lessens risk by limiting exposure to one location and fewer personnel. It reduces cost by eliminating the redundancy of multiple mail centers, personnel, and equipment. Utilization of a trained staff working together at one location increases efficiency. Deploying better equipment at one location that greatly enhances risk reduction improves effectiveness.

The initial sorting of the mail for delivery should be done by hand. This is the point at which screening of incoming mail for suspect items should occur. Individuals who normally sort the mail should perform the screening function. These individuals are most likely to notice packages that are out of the ordinary.

The basic screening procedures for incoming mail and packages are not foolproof. In many cases, the person who first detects anything suspicious about a package is the recipient. For this reason, each facility should distribute a list of suspicious package indicators to all personnel to increase their awareness of suspicious packages.

Regardless of the number of mail handling locations, agencies should consider utilization of these best practices:

Basic Steps for Safe Mail Handling

  • Employ professional security personnel.
  • Have security personnel greet all employees and visitors and examine their personal belongings.
  • Restrict access to the facility to authorized users only.
  • Keep detailed logs of visitor arrivals and departures.
  • Install an intrusion detection system.
  • Use CCTV to record and store unobstructed surveillance of operation areas and exterior.
  • Ensure adequate lighting for operations area, exterior, and CCTV.
  • Use easily distinguishable badges for staff and visitors and require that they be displayed.
  • Ensure that accountability for lock and key control is in place.
  • Keep storage areas, boiler rooms, and telephone utility closets off limits to visitors.
  • Develop an emergency plan for response to a known or a suspected hazard.
  • Train workers to recognize and handle a suspicious piece of mail.
  • Identify a single point of contact to open mail.
  • Restrict drivers and deliveries to a specific area.
  • Establish a communication channel to report security deficiencies.
  • Screen all incoming mail.
  • Do not open mail in an unauthorized area.
  • Develop specific screening and inspection procedures for all incoming mail or package deliveries and train personnel in those procedures.
  • Develop specific mail center handling techniques and procedures for items screened and identified as suspicious and dangerous.
  • Establish procedures for isolating a suspicious package.
  • Conduct training sessions for mail room, security, and management personnel.
  • Conduct unannounced tests for mail center personnel.
  • Know the phone number, location, time, and response abilities of the local HAZMAT team.
  • Conduct a review immediately following an event and produce a written report with follow-up corrective actions or process improvements.

  • Have appropriate protective wear available for mail handler’s use:

  • Gloves
  • Masks or respirators depending on the appropriate selected gear
  • Smocks
  • Protective glasses

  • As the risk assessment dictates and budgets allow, programs should be augmented with additional countermeasures. Continue to research new technology that will lower risk and enhance safety. The following measures may be implemented if finances, company scope and need allow:

    Enhanced Steps

  • Bomb detection / K-9
  • X-ray for incoming mail
  • Detection devices
  • Hold mail 24 hours or until testing concluded
  • Containment receptacles for mail storage
  • Separate air filtration unit
  • Monitored mail operations
  • Safe air room for mail processing
  • Monthly swab testing of mail room
  • Showers or decontamination system
  • Protective clothing
  • Duress alarm

  • Engineering controls provide the best means of preventing worker exposure to potential hazardous aerosolized particles, or contaminated surfaces and potential explosive devices.

    To provide protection from biological hazards, consider:

  • An industrial vacuum cleaner equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter for cleaning high-speed, mail-sorting machinery and local exhaust ventilation at pinch roller areas.
  • Filtered exhaust hoods installed in areas, such as areas with high-speed, mail-sorting machinery, where dust is generated.
  • Air curtains, using laminar air flow, installed in areas where large amounts of mail are processed.
  • Filters installed in the building’s HVAC systems (if feasible) to capture aerosolized spores.
  • Machinery should not be cleaned using compressed air (i.e., blow-down/blow-off).

  • Training Employees

    Education and awareness are the two most essential ingredients to preparedness. Employees must remain aware of their surroundings and the packages they handle. You must carefully design and vigorously monitor your security program to reduce the risk for all.

    Through training, you can develop a culture of security awareness in your operation. Training is essential to ensure employee confidence in their safety. Managers should consider security training a critical element of their job.

    A complete training program will include:

  • Establishing basic security procedures;
  • Recognizing and reporting suspicious packages;
  • Proper using personal protection equipment;
  • Responding to a biological threat; and
  • Responding to a bomb threat.

  • Maintain a log of all employees and training attended, including the date completed. Follow up with refresher training on a regular basis. In addition to educating the employees who work in the mail center, there should be education for all employees who work in the facility on best mail practices including security measures. Employee awareness of the measures taken leads to confidence in the safety of the packages that are delivered to them.

    Reviewing Security Plans

    Periodic training and exercises are vital to successful implementation of security policies. A well-trained staff can minimize the impact of dangerous mail handling. All training should place emphasis on life safety, security communication, efficiency, and roles and responsibilities to minimize risk.

    An external review of the facility security plan is highly recommended. This may include a review by a security consultant, a security department, or a peer review.

    Personnel suspicious of a letter or parcel should be trained to take the following measures:

  • Be wary of unexpected packages, and check the return address.
  • Notify their supervisor, security personnel, or local law enforcement.
  • Do not shake or bump the item.
  • Do not open, smell, touch, or taste.
  • Isolate the damaged or suspicious item immediately.
  • Cordon off the immediate area.
  • Ensure that all persons who have touched the mail piece wash their hands, face, and mouth with soap and water.
  • List all persons who have touched the item, including contact information, and have this information available for the authorities.
  • Place all items worn when in contact with the suspected mail piece in plastic bags, and have them available for law enforcement agents.
  • Shower with soap and water as soon as practical.

  • Handling Suspicious Mail

    When suspicious mail contains a powder:

  • Do not clean up the powder.
  • Cover the spilled contents immediately with anything (e.g., clothing, paper, trash can, etc.), and do not remove the cover.
  • Leave the room and close the door or section off the area to prevent others from entering.
  • Wash your hands, face and mouth with soap and water to prevent spreading any powder to your face.
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke around suspected mail.
  • Notify your building security official or an available supervisor and report the incident to local enforcement.
  • Remove contaminated clothing as soon as possible, place in a plastic bag or some other container that can be sealed and give it to the emergency responders for proper handling.
  • Shower with soap and water as soon as possible.
  • Do not use bleach or other disinfectant on your skin.
  • If possible, list all people who were in the room or area, especially those who had actual contact with the powder. Give this list to both the local public health authorities so that proper instructions can be given for medical follow-up, and to law enforcement officials for further investigation.

    When suspicious mail releases potential air contaminants:

  • Turn off local fans or ventilation units in the area.
  • Leave area immediately.
  • Close the door, or section off the area to prevent others from entering.
  • Notify your building security official or an available supervisor, and report to local police and FBI.
  • Shut down air handling system in the building, if possible.

  • If possible, list all people who were in the room or area. Give this list to both the local public health authorities so that proper instructions can be given for medical follow-up and law enforcement officials for further investigation.


    Handling Suspicious Packages and Possible Letter Bombs

    Mail bombs may bear restricted endorsements, such as “Personal” or “Private.” These characteristics are important when the addressee does not usually receive personal mail at the office.

    Mail bombs may have distorted handwriting, or the name and address may be prepared with homemade labels or cut-and-paste lettering. Letter bombs may feel rigid, or appear uneven or lopsided. If you are suspicious of a mailing and are unable to verify the contents with the addressee or sender:

  • Do not open it.
  • Treat it as suspect.
  • Isolate it.
  • Contact building security.
  • Call the police.
  • Call the fire department.
  • Call your postal inspector.

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the lead federal agency for crisis management for all acts of terrorism and in all threats or incidents of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Federal Protective Service (FPS) is part of the Department of Homeland Security and is responsible for security for many federal buildings and location.

    Threats to a mail handling operation can impact the entire facility as well as cause panic for the general population. It is fundamental to incorporate protection of the personnel and the facility with the identification of the threat. Many mail centers have satellite facilities where mail operations are performed in a small room, one corner of a room, or one corner of a desk. At these facilities, responsibility for processing mail is divided among professional and support staff. Security plans for small facilities are, of course, limited by both the size of the facility and the resources available to develop and implement plans. Small facilities will therefore, adopt those recommendations from this document that are appropriate to them.

    Best practices are dependent upon a mail center’s needs; there are too many variables to recommend a uniform mail handling process. Strategic objectives are useful to help policymakers develop the framework for facility specific goals. Each business must evaluate its own situation and objectively weigh the threat circumstances in order to render a prudent decision.


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