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Do postal workers really ‘go postal’?

Panel finds post office is just as safe as any other job workplace

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WASHINGTON — "Going postal" is a myth, according to a commission formed to study violence at the post office. The panel found postal workers are no more likely to face violence on the job than workers in general, and only one-third as likely to be murdered there.

Joseph Califano, who headed the commission, said postal workers have gotten a "bad rap" from reports about violent incidents.

A series of killings at post offices in the late 1980s and 1990s drew attention to tensions in the postal workplace and raised concerns about the safety of employees.

In 1998, postal officials asked Califano, director of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, to head a panel analyzing the issue.

His conclusion: " 'Going postal' is a myth and a bad rap, causing unnecessary apprehension and fear among 900,000 postal workers."

Mary Elcano, former general counsel for the post office, agreed, commenting that "what concerned me is the sensationalism that surrounded the coverage of Postal Service events has done violence to Postal Service employees, in their view of the security that they have in the workplace."

Elcano, now a partner in the Washington law office Brown & Wood, had not seen a final version of the study.

The 249-page report concludes that postal workers are only one-third as likely as others in the national workforce to be victims of homicide on the job — 0.26 per 100,000 compared with 0.77 per 100,000.

And retail workers are eight times more likely than postal employees to be homicide victims on the job, according to the study.

The study surveyed 12,000 postal workers and 3,000 employees in other jobs around the country and concluded that there is an unacceptable level of violence in the American workplace. Among the findings:

One in 20 workers was physically assaulted on the job on the past year, 5 percent for postal workers and others.

More than one in six people were sexually harassed at work, 14 percent for postal workers, 16 percent in other jobs.

About one-third of workers said they were verbally abused on the job, 36 percent of postal workers, 33 percent elsewhere.

The chance of physical assault by co-workers was 4 percent for postal employees, 3 percent for others.

But postal workers were less likely to face physical assault from outsiders, 0.4 percent versus 2.3 percent.

The new analysis noted that postal workers file an unusually high number of grievances and equal-employment-opportunity complaints and said the backlog can take years to resolve, increasing tensions between labor and management.

It noted that a redress program started under Elcano in 1994 has helped resolve at least some of that problem by using outside professionals to mediate disputes. The report urged increased use of outside counselors and investigators.

In the wake of the violent incidents the post office instituted programs to prevent repeats, including a zero-tolerance policy for weapons on postal premises.

The report said those programs should be continued. Other recommendations included:

Improve screening of job applicants for potential violence.

Improve security by establishing a communications system for carriers, especially in high-crime and remote areas.

Clarify policy on zero tolerance for violence and increase understanding of that policy.

Continue violence awareness programs for workers with greater union participation.

Assure that warning signals are heeded by improving operation of local teams established to assess threats and respond to crises.

Limit potential for violence during and after terminations by better training for managers and union officials in handling these situations.