U.S. Postal Workers Were on the Front Lines Before. They Were Ignored.

In 2001, postal workers, for a brief moment, had a chance to reorganize how postal policy operated. But their health and safety was traded away in favor of cheap and fast mail.

In 2001, an unknown number of letters containing spores of anthrax were sent through the U.S. postal system, exposing scores of postal workers and patrons to possible harm. Five individuals died as a result of anthrax exposure (22 were infected) while over 30,000 people were given prophylactic antibiotic treatment. According to estimates compiled by the National Research Council, one-third of the U.S. population took extra precautions in handling the mail during the attacks. The economic impact of the attacks was staggering: Postal facility cleanup ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars while declines in letter volume, productivity, and new security measures amounted to roughly $6 billion.

Suddenly, one of the more mundane aspects of daily life — opening the mail — became imbued with danger and unease. Panic ran high: Hoaxes and false alarms involving letters thought to contain anthrax became common disruptions; the investigative arm of the United States Postal Service (USPS), the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), dealt with over 17,000 such incidents and evacuated over 600 postal facilities in the year following the attacks. As Chief Postal Inspector Lee Heath noted, the anthrax letters were a “weapon of mass disruption.” While not reaching catastrophic levels of harm, the tragic deaths of five individuals, compounded by widespread anxiety and far-reaching economic consequences, elevated the attacks into a disaster. The attacks destabilized the continued flow of mail; imperiled, to a degree, the health of workers and patrons; and introduced potentially ruinous costs for the already financially precarious USPS.

Postal workers and the commercial mailing industry wrestled to define the terms on which new forms of postal security would rest. Labor and commercial mailers viewed the problem of biological terrorism through starkly different lenses: Workers viewed it as a workplace safety issue, while the mailing industry — companies relying on mailings as a central component of their business, including direct mailers that advertise for clients and catalog merchants — worried about disruptions to the smooth functioning of the postal network. These interpretations focused on different objects of concern — the protection of worker health, on the one hand, and the preservation of network functionality, on the other — and, unsurprisingly, led to disagreements over the contours of new security standards.


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