The world of mail center operations has changed dramatically since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the original anthrax letters were discovered. The key objectives of faster and more efficient mail processing and delivery are still vital, but mail center managers are now looking for new and better ways to ensure employee safety, protect the security of the work environment and ensure continued mailstream operations.
Since 2001, the mailing industry has witnessed a significant increase in both the number and scope of disruptive events that could impact a mail center and cripple the organization it serves. These events range from naturally occurring
disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, snow and ice storms and tornadoes, to wide scale power outages and even to acts of terrorism.
Complicating matters further are the recurring hoaxes that have appeared in mail centers across the country. Since 2001, postal inspectors have responded to more than 20,000 reports of suspicious mail. These items may not have constituted a real threat, but they still disrupt operations and instill fear among workers. The potential also exists for a global pandemic that could make it virtually impossible to maintain normal mailstream operations.
Another key trend impacting mail center operations is the increase in teleworking. With the onset of higher gasoline prices, many workers are shifting their business activities to their homes or remote locations, making it increasingly difficult to coordinate delivery of critical mail, documents and packages if a disruption occurs.
Whatever form they take, disruptive events can have a variety of impacts. They can damage the physical facilities of an organization, making them unavailable for workers. And they can impact the surrounding area, such as a region's infrastructure or transportation system, which could prevent employees from getting to work. These events can also contaminate a work site in a manner similar to the anthrax attacks. Finally, they can impact workers directly, such as an Avian Flu pandemic, where employees may be unable to get to work due to serious illness, fear of contagion, quarantine or the need to care for sick relatives. All of these impacts will severely limit the ability of a mail center to perform its core functions and, therefore, must be prevented and prepared for to the fullest extent possible.
Given the range, scope and impact of possible business disruptions from incidents like 9/11 and anthrax to power failures, storms such as Hurricane Katrina, terror attacks on mass transit systems (as seen in Spain, London and India) and a possible Avian Flu pandemic there is a clear need for a comprehensive mail center continuity plan.
The first step in preparing such a plan is to complete a risk assessment of the mail center. Most businesses have developed extensive risk assessments for the entire organization. Check to see if the mail center was included. Consider what factors are likely to cause a disruption. What impact will those disruptions have on the mail center, and on the organization and its customers? Document any potential cause of disruption, and develop a mitigation plan.
Next, consider the need to bolster employee training and procedures for handling suspicious items. Employees should be trained to identify and deal safely with new potential hazards, to isolate and secure potentially contaminated work areas and to alert management (and possibly local law enforcement and environmental officials) to an incident as quickly as possible.
Consider relocating mail processing to a remote location and installing a modular, biohazard containment facility. Relocating the incoming mail function will immediately isolate it from other corporate departments and reduce overall risk. Installing a biohazard containment facility serves two purposes. First, it provides a safe, isolated environment for employees to screen all incoming mail and packages for chemical, biological, radiological and explosive materials. And second, it provides secure containment if harmful factors, such as biological and chemical threats, are found.
Identify several alternate locations for the mail center in case a disruption makes it impossible to use the primary center. One location may be in a nearby building. Another should be at the corporate business continuity site, if the company has one. Modular biohazard containment facilities are also a great option since they can be constructed virtually anywhere very quickly.
Consider integrating a digital mail operation into the business continuity mail center. If a disruption occurs, a digital mail capability enables physical mail and documents to be converted into electronic form and ensures prompt delivery of critical messages even if recipients are relocated to another facility or are dispersed over a wide area, such as those teleworking from home.
Mail center operations can be disrupted by a variety of factors. Keeping a mail center up and running through safe mail handling procedures and extensive continuity planning ensures that important communications are delivered promptly and that critical business activities are unimpeded. Mail center managers should act now to evaluate all risks and take sensible precautionary steps to prevent or mitigate the impact of potential disruptions. Prior planning and proper training will help managers recover quickly and restore normal mail center operations as quickly as possible.
Robert F. Hahn, II, PhD, is Vice President, Strategy and Secure Mail Solutions, Pitney Bowes Management Services. Hahn develops business process outsourcing, document management and global secure mail solutions for government agencies and commercial organizations. Contact him at Robert.Hahn@pb.com.