- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

The U.S. Postal Service has bought millions of protective masks to guard its 700,000 workers who handle mail against inhaling anthrax spores, but postal workers are not allowed to use the masks until they are trained under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules.
On the advice of health officials at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, the Postal Service bought 4.8 million of the spore-proof masks for its workers who handle mail and began offering workers the masks last week.
But according to OSHA officials and regulations, the workers must undergo hours of training and pass a "fit test" before they can be allowed to use the protective masks, which are like those worn by construction workers who install drywall and can be purchased at hardware stores.
During a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday, Postmaster General John E. Potter and his deputy, Chief Operating Officer Patrick R. Donahoe, expressed frustration over the regulations.
"[Y]ou've got to make sure that people have been properly trained and instructed on how to use the masks," Mr. Donahoe said. "There's also some testing you've got to do with employees to make sure that they're getting enough air in, based on the type of mask that we use."
The two postal workers at the District's central mail-processing facility at Brentwood Road NE who died of inhalation anthrax probably could have been saved had they worn some sort of mask, Mr. Potter said.
Postal Service spokeswoman Kristin Krathwohl said the agency is using up to three different kinds of masks that are being distributed first to 140 postal facilities on the East Coast, but are available to any postal worker who works with mail.
There are 38,000 post office retail outlets and hundreds of other postal facilities across the country where workers regularly handle mail.
Postal sources said the masks come with instructions on how to wear them, but OSHA regulations require that the workers "be trained by a supervisor" on how to use them.
"We're not stupid, we just want people to put the masks on," a senior postal official said. "OSHA is the stumbling block."
The postal sources said most supervisors are just handing out the masks and not worrying about the OSHA rules, and some workers are not wearing the masks.
OSHA officials, who asked not to be identified, defended the regulations. One said that postal workers "are not going to get any protection if these things don't fit."
"You are giving a false sense of security to people if you tell them to just put it on," one OSHA official said.
Philip K. Howard, a New York City-based lawyer and author of "The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America," said the OSHA mask rule should be thrown out during this time of crisis.
"Using these [masks] imperfectly for a while is a whole lot better than not wearing them at all," Mr. Howard said, adding that common sense should be the guiding force.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, asked why the Postal Service was not just requiring personnel to wear gloves and masks if the CDC has indicated it would provide protection. Mr. Potter and Mr. Donahoe said they had to work with OSHA and the postal unions before they could implement such a sweeping measure.
The American Postal Workers Union told its members in an Oct. 19 online newsletter not to wear any of the gloves and masks offered by the Postal Service since they may project a public image of fear.
The union backed off its no-gloves-and-masks recommendation when the postal workers died days later.
"I'm becoming more and more familiar with law that I never knew existed," Mr. Potter said.


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