Postal Service employees not told about extent of anthrax threat

The USPS acted properly when it did not release information about anthrax contamination to employees.

In 2001, letters contaminated with anthrax resulted in 23 cases of the disease, 5 deaths, and the contamination of numerous U.S. Postal Service facilities, including the Southern Connecticut Processing and Distribution Center in Wallingford, Connecticut.

GAO investigated whether the Postal Service acted responsibly when it decided not to release to employees the results of a positive finding of anthrax.

Here’s what happened. The Wallingford facility tested positive for anthrax in December 2001. The tests found contamination in samples from four mailsorting machines in November. While no employees became ill from the contamination, there were about 3 million anthrax cells in one of the samples. This amount is serious and can lead to death.

GAO concluded the Postal Service acted within its guidelines when it did not tell employees about the extent of the anthrax contamination. It did not advise employees of this because it could not validate the results, as required.

But, said the GAO, the subsequent decision by the agency not to release the results after an employee union requested all the facility’s test results in January and February 2002, was not consistent with a requirement of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for disclosing test results when they are requested.

GAO decided that the decision by the Postal Service not to release the test results was understandable consideing advice it received from public health officials, an ongoing criminal investigation, and uncertainties about the sampling methods used.

GAO also concluded that the guidelines should be revised to provide for releasing more information in the future.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47