U.S. postal workers to get masks, gloves

Employees in Maryland to receive antibiotics as precautionary measure

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 26, 2001|By Tom Pelton and Frank D. Roylance | Tom Pelton and Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The Postal Service geared up yesterday to provide millions of masks and gloves to its employees nationwide, while Maryland health officials announced they would give antibiotics to thousands of postal workers as a precaution against anthrax.

Mail handlers in Baltimore, shaken by the deaths of two co-workers in the Washington area, reacted to the offers of help with fear, relief, anger and gallows humor.

"I'm making sure my life insurance policies are paid up. A lot of people are tense and frustrated because we feel like we're sitting ducks," said Gloria Drake, a shop steward in the Baltimore postal workers union who held a tablet of the antibiotic Cipro yesterday as she walked out of the Fayette Street post office downtown.

A spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said last night that health officials will supply antibiotics to all postal workers who work in offices that receive mail directly from the Brentwood mail distribution center in Washington, where four employees have contracted inhalation anthrax, including two fatal cases.

Many of those post offices are in the Washington suburbs, while others are scattered around the state, said Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill.

The state is expanding the circle of mail handlers to get antibiotics because investigators yesterday found evidence of anthrax in a Sterling, Va., post office that receives mail from Brentwood, Morrill said.

"We know we had cases [of anthrax] in Brentwood - and now we are looking at facilities one step outward from Brentwood as a precaution," Morrill said.

In Washington, the Postal Service said yesterday it had purchased 86 million pairs of gloves - enough to supply three pairs daily to each of its 800,000 employees nationwide. Almost half of those have been shipped.

Four million "N95" face masks - which can filter 95 percent of all airborne microbes, including anthrax spores - have also been purchased. Half are on their way to East Coast postal facilities.

But, in a health advisory issued Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said anyone working near mail-sorting machines needs more sophisticated breathing equipment "at least as protective as a half-mask respirator equipped with N100 ... filters."

These are typically double-strapped plastic or rubber masks that cover the mouth and nose, and have inhalation valves the size of hockey pucks.

The 4 million masks purchased by the Postal Service are the lower-quality variety, which are recommended by the CDC for employees not working near mail-sorting machinery.

At the Fayette Street post office in Baltimore yesterday, dozens of workers at the mail-sorting machines wore what appeared to be the higher-quality masks, according to co-workers.

Most employees sorting the mail wore gloves, but those serving the public at the counters had no protection. The gloves and masks are optional, according to the Postal Service.

In outlying stations in the city, few employees wore masks or gloves. Most workers at the Hampden and Roland Park stations wore no protection, while those at Patterson Park wore gloves.

"We're examining the mail more carefully and looking for suspicious packages, but we're not wearing any masks or gloves because we don't feel any imminent danger," said Michele Rainey, a window clerk in Hampden.

Postal employees said they were furious that two of their colleagues in the District of Columbia died of anthrax before the government got serious about testing their workplaces and providing safety equipment.

Others said they were offered gloves and masks but didn't want to wear them because they were inconvenient and of questionable value.

"Customers ask me, `Why aren't you wearing gloves?'" said Caleb Wilson, a letter carrier in Highlandtown. "But what good would gloves do? If I'm wearing gloves, and I hand an anthrax-laced letter to a customer who isn't wearing gloves, then they'll get anthrax."

Postal Service spokesman Bob Novak said masks and gloves have always been available to mail workers, with many using them to prevent skin irritation.

A letter carrier at Baltimore's Druid Hill post office, who asked not to be identified, said long-promised supplies of gloves were made available this week, but some workers have had to buy masks or improvise with scarfs.

She said workers were given a single pair of gloves and told to wash and dry them at home and use them again.

Novak said supplies might have been short initially, but postal sites were being resupplied this week. Washing and re-using disposable gloves "is definitely not Postal Service policy," he said. "We should have enough on hand."

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