Statistically speaking, the Postal Service isn't any more dangerous than other businesses. Research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) indicates that the average annual rate of occupational injury death in the Postal Service is less than half the rate for all occupations combined. However, it also shows that co-workers appear to be disproportionately responsible for homicides that occur in the Postal Service. Between 1983 and 1989, for example, 57% of work-related homicides at the Postal Service were committed by co-workers or former co-workers. Only 4% of work-related homicides industrywide in 1992 were committed by this group.
These facts prompted the Postal Service to re-examine its work practices in regard to employee safety. Its examination has led to the development of a six-strategy violence prevention program, coordinated through the agency's national employee relations function. The strategies are:
The goal of the Postal Service is to hire selectively, ensuring it gets the right people in the jobs in the first place. Its pre-screening process includes performing competency tests and contracting with an outside firm to do thorough background checks.
"To protect people from homicide and other violence, a certain amount of security is necessary," says Ann Wright, manager for safety and health, who, until August 20 when the agency brought in a full-time coordinator, managed the program. What that amount is varies from location to location. The Postal Service has 47,000 facilities that range from one-person post offices to 24-hour plants employing 4,000 people. Some facilities rely on awareness programs and training on such issues as how to report incidents. Others employ security guards, attach surveillance cameras on the premises or require access badges. Management at each location assesses the measures that should be taken with the Postal Inspection Service-the law-enforcement arm of the Postal Service.
"We're trying to promote a clear, direct, absolute and well-known policy related to violence," Wright says. That includes a prohibition of any kind of weapon on postal property, including parking lots, a no-tolerance philosophy towards threats of any kind and a protocol to intervene early. "There's no minor incident of violence," says Wright. "We want to take action even if there's just pushing, yelling or cussing on the floor so that we can preclude those incidents from escalating into something bigger." For this reason, the policy also includes reporting all incidents.
A healthy workplace is a safe workplace, so the Postal Service has an intense initiative to improve the agency's environment. It's putting managers and supervisors through a series of training sessions that deal with such issues as employee empowerment, conflict resolution and positive reinforcement. It's also working with its unions to improve the grievance process. Some regions are testing intervention teams, comprising cross-functional groups of employees and managers, to intervene when their facility's climate isn't conducive to a good work environment. And, the agency has instituted an employee-opinion survey that measures employee satisfaction and promotes better interaction between managers and employees.
The Postal Service has beefed up its employee assistance program (EAP) in the last year and a half and currently is conducting training with supervisors and managers on how best to use the EAP and how to educate employees on how to use it. The agency also has implemented an orientation program for all the employees explaining the program. And in addition to the EAP, the Postal Service has installed a 24-hour, toll-free hotline that employees can call to report threats or concerns. "We are trying to catch problems that individuals might have early enough so that we can deal with them before they get to the point at which somebody loses control," Wright says. "We're also trying to make the point with our managers and supervisors that firing people doesn't necessarily solve the problem. Quite a few of our most violent incidents have been by terminated employees who come back and shoot people. So that's part of the support system that we're trying to build."
Because termination does become necessary at times, the agency currently is creating policies and procedures for terminating employees in the most effective way. It's also evaluating methods for making assessments on whether the people being dismissed may be dangerous. Because this is a recent initiative, no specific strategies have been developed yet.
Personnel Journal, October 1994, Vol.73, No. 10, p. 69.