USPS OIG: Mercury Mailability Communication and Implementation

Objective

Our objective was to assess the effectiveness of the internal communication and implementation of mercury mailability policy changes.

The Postal Service revised its mercury mailability policies in March of 2019 as a result of mercury spills at various mail processing plants throughout the country. The Postal Service made notable changes to its Publication 52, Hazardous, Restricted, and Perishable Mail, regarding the amount and type of items containing mercury that can be mailed. For example, devices containing metallic mercury, such as thermometers or barometers, were designated as “nonmailable.”

The Postal Service made other operational changes to align with these policy updates. Specifically, in August 2019, “mercury” was added to the hazardous materials (HAZMAT) question that Postal Service employees at retail windows are required to ask customers attempting to mail packages. The updated HAZMAT question is “Do any of your articles contain anything liquid, fragile, perishable or potentially hazardous, such as lithium batteries, perfume or mercury?”

As management finalized these policy and operational changes, Postal Service leadership across multiple organizations (such as Corporate Communications, Delivery and Retail Operations, and Labor Relations) developed the following:

  • Communication strategy for notifying Postal Service field staff of these changes including the corresponding channels (for example, emails, stand-up talks, bulletins, videos), messaging, frequency, and timing.
  • Implementation strategy for ensuring Postal Service field staff are aware of and compliance with the changes – this included trainings, certifications, and related tracking and oversight mechanisms.

Postal Service Headquarters staff from Corporate Communications and Delivery and Retail Operations managed the communication and distribution of information related to these changes to Postal Service staff throughout the field. The changes were published in a variety of channels such as the Postal Service’s internal website, USPS Link, Postal Pro, Postal Bulletin, Retail Digest,

Consumer Advocate Newsletter, emails, and memos. These changes were also communicated through stand-up talks, videos, and teleconferences.

Postal Service field staff used a variety of mechanisms to monitor implementation of these changes. These mechanisms included certifications for staff and supervisors to verify they were provided applicable information and training; mystery shops by internal staff or external contractors; and supervisory observations of individual transactions recorded on Postal Service Form 4000-B, Retail Employee Observation.

Our fieldwork was completed before the President of the United States issued the national emergency declaration concerning the novel coronavirus disease outbreak on March 13, 2020. The results of this audit do not reflect process and/or operational changes that occurred as a result of the pandemic.

Finding

The Postal Service’s communication of mercury mailability changes needs improvement to ensure consistent application across all retail locations. We noted employees at 18 of 38 (47 percent) randomly selected retail units we visited improperly accepted our test packages. The employees at five of these locations did not ask the required HAZMAT question and the employees at four of these locations incorrectly asked the question by omitting any reference to mercury.

Local management and staff attributed the improper package acceptance primarily to confusion about the current policy over mercury mailability. Employees at 12 of the units mistakenly accepted test packages incorrectly assuming the items could be accepted and shipped via the Postal Service’s ground network. Some field management and staff we spoke with noted the infrequent nature of these transaction (i.e., mercury mailings are relatively infrequent) and a focus on customer service are likely contributing factors to improper package acceptance.

Targeted communication improvements related to mercury mailability standards, such as reminding staff of the standards or developing a quickly accessible reference tool or mechanism summarizing them, could help alleviate confusion and promote expediency.

Leading practices suggest reference tools or job aids could help window employees with these types of transactions (for example, infrequent, complex, or safety/security-related). The Postal Service could implement such tools nationally, such as visual prompts on the window employee’s retail monitor displaying the key points of the Postal Service’s mercury mailability policy. These actions, along with existing mechanisms for assessing compliance, such as the mystery shops and other training, would aid in effective and consistent implementation of important policies.

Continued deficiencies in the application of the mercury mailability standards pose increased safety, security, operational, and brand risks to the Postal Service as recent mercury spills at plants across the country had a damaging effect on employees, operations, and mail service.

Recommendations

We recommended management:

  • Develop a communication strategy to remind field staff of the mercury mailability policy changes.
  • Develop a reference tool or mechanism summarizing the mercury mailability standards that retail window employees can quickly and efficiently access when approached by a customer attempting to mail mercury.

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