April 16 2008 09:40 AM

With an increase in volume of both electronic and physical mail correspondence in today's globalized society, mail operations burgeon with unforeseeable threats and camouflaged activities aimed at the destruction and harm of human life.


Many material handling systems and technologies have become available to reduce these threats, although few solutions guarantee 100% safety for facility personnel, processes or overall operations. The use of automated sorting machines has greatly improved processing throughput, but at the same time has made it nearly impossible to deal with mail-born contamination. In the processing wake, high-speed sorting machines heavily spread contamination, all while being nearly impossible to decontaminate themselves. This poses a significant problem for safe sorting and safe mail handling.


For facility managers and professionals, exceptional customer service results from optimizing operational performance and throughput; nevertheless, ultimate customer service and productivity integrates safe sorting processes and considerations. This begins with ensuring an entire facility's functioning capabilities are streamlined by proper pre-planning, organization, flow and setup. This planning must be based on the volume and specific mail processing goals for each operation.


Accordingly, every mail screening operation should undergo an initial worksite evaluation, even though basic recommendations and prototype models may have been followed when considering items such as personnel awareness and training, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter-equipped systems, administrative controls and, most importantly, engineering controls.


Mail sorting machinery has the potential to aerosolize hidden chemical and biological threats; therefore, administrative controls may be the first line of defense in combating these dangers. The number of operations personnel in designated "Hot Zone" areas in any mail screening/sorting facility should be strictly adhered to and controlled in order to reduce and limit any potential cross-contamination that may occur. This should include not only operations personnel, but also business visitors, support staff and contractors.


Additionally, all personnel that are working in mail sorting and handling facilities should be trained in the identification and handling of suspicious packages. They should have the training and ability to adeptly monitor escalating situations until the proper emergency first responder personnel arrive at the site. Training must be developed to include safety protocols that dictate actions to be followed for any type of emergency event from identification to containment and/or disposal. Another consideration in all mail environments is to ensure that an emergency evacuation plan is executed for all potential threat scenarios and is routinely exercised and trained with all facility personnel.


Mail volume at sorting and screening facilities varies greatly and, whether large or small, all facilities must ensure their personnel are safely protected from potential threats throughout the entire sorting process from the time it is in-processed to time of delivery. The level of PPE worn should be compatible with recommendations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which includes Level A through D protective gear. The PPE worn in each designated area is dependent on the type and level of potential exposure that personnel may encounter while working in that particular area. For example, in low-level threat areas, personnel may be required to wear only safety glasses, latex gloves or ear plugs. Conversely, potentially high-level threat areas or "hot zones" may require Level A or Level B PPE when the greatest level of skin, respiratory and eye protection is required. As always, training on proper use and maintenance of all PPE is a requirement to ensure a safe working environment.


Engineering controls may be the most critical factor in safe sorting/screening environments and should be carefully implemented in vital areas of mail sorting facilities. Many types of chemical and biological threats have the capability of aerosolizing during the operation of high-speed mail sorting equipment. This contamination spread can potentially expose workers or contaminate a facility's operations by spreading the aerosol through heating, ventilation or any type of HVAC system. Proper engineering controls ensure work stoppages are kept at a minimum, equipment is not compromised and, most importantly, the main asset to any organization its employees are kept out of harm's way. In safe sorting mail environments, some considerations are the following:

  • Ventilation systems
  • Safety interlocks
  • HEPA filtered exhaust systems and cleaning vacuums
  • Negatively pressurized processing rooms for added capabilities
  • Air curtains installed in areas where large amounts of mail are processed
  • Radiation shielding

In today's fast-paced world, high-volume mail sorting centers are increasingly in demand. With proper planning, skill and knowledge, it is possible to achieve all mail sorting/screening goals and hold the keys to protecting employees and facilities. There are many considerations to ensure not only a safe and exceptional final product for your customer but that will also protect your first priority: employees.


Contact Don Shanks, Vice President of Engineering for SoBran Inc. at 703-352-1344; dshanks@sobran-inc.com.