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How to Reopen Your Mail Centers

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, many companies shut down their offices and told people to work from home. As they begin to reopen, companies will face three major hurdles in their mail centers. First, the amount of mail that will arrive when the doors to the facility open may be overwhelming. Second, the facility itself will require significant and likely mandated adaptations to support safe daily operations.

Third, in normal times mail can be a significant security challenge: according to a 2019 survey, one in three major companies reports receiving mailborne threats annually—many more than once. Companies that are laying off people, cutting hours and wages, or have upset customers may be targeted even more than usual by disgruntled current and former employees. Executives may be a particular target.

Companies must now successfully deal with a high volume of mail in a new environment and with an elevated threat level.

The Mail Overload Problem

Mail doesn’t care about coronavirus. It has not stopped flowing, and it is backing up in trucks, blocking up facilities, and often just being dumped on the floors of empty offices. Essential staff members manning the logistics functions—including mail center operations—have been handling the bare minimum amount required to keep the organization moving forward. Companies need a plan to manage the problem they are about to walk back into.

After 9/11 and the anthrax letter incidents, mail inside of Washington, D.C., required new levels of screening, causing significant issues and lasting for months. To solve the backlog, first companies changed their stance on what they were going to deal with, and then they shifted as needed. The solutions used to mitigate the problem give examples of what steps might be adopted to deal with today's pandemic-related mail challenge:

  • Pick a point in time to start screening—either the oldest or most recent unscreened mail, based on the needs of the company.
  • Plan for increased logistical requirements; boxes may become pallets and require increased material handling equipment.
  • Immediately remove mailers and media mail from delivery.
  • Screen and remove all nonessential mail addressed to the company and not to an individual.
  • Make management-level decisions on who can pick up mail and when they are authorized to do so to avoid overloading the mail center.
  • Adjust company policies and inform employees that personal mail sent to the company is not guaranteed for delivery.

Physical Workspace Changes

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s direction of a 6- and possibly as much as 13-foot separation between individuals applies to the workplace, too. Sticking with a minimum of 6 feet of separation requires changes to the environment that needs support from management. Workers will need to wear personal protective equipment (PPE).

Direct contamination with coronavirus on the outside of mail that has been sitting around for weeks is not a concern; even the likelihood of contamination from newly arriving mail is very low. Wearing gloves and then washing hands should provide sufficient protection.

Mail center tasks can no longer be looked at as simply administrative in function, and they need to be considered a safety issue for the entire organization. Because employees depend on these functions for daily support, some mundane functions and updates are now critical:

  • Relocating and reconfiguring mail centers, and possibly dedicating workspaces to promote employee distancing;
  • Preparation of mail reception sites to support easy decontamination and quick preparation for reuse;
  • Shielding and physical separation of mailroom employees and customers when the 6-foot distancing policy cannot be maintained;
  • Utilizing PPE, including masks for mail handlers while screening and delivering mail, and frequent glove changes are required to protect all employees;
  • Assigning work areas with boundaries between mailroom workers and drop points where employees can transfer packages while maintaining social distancing ;
  • Increasing dedicated handwashing stations, with hand sanitizer available in each independent work area and not communally to increase individual health; and
  • Continuing to meet remotely even when all employees are in the same facility.

Adopting a Mail Security Protocol

With so many companies receiving mailborne threats even in normal times, it’s imperative for companies to implement or revisit a comprehensive mail security program in this environment of heightened risk. There are three key steps to detecting mailborne threats:

  1. Identify the chain of custody. People sending real or hoax threats to a company usually want to remain anonymous. In the United States, the best way to do that is to mail a small package through a blue U.S. Postal Service (USPS) drop box; threats are far less likely to arrive via UPS, FedEx, etc. The use of informal courier services by retailers is presenting a new potential security threat because a bad actor may pose as a courier without arousing much suspicion.
  2. Recognize that size matters. Because the USPS requires that all packages more than 0.5 inches thick or heavier than 10 ounces be sent at a post office, most threats arrive in small packages. Remember: these days a listening device targeted at the executive suite can be tiny.
  3. Conduct visual inspections outside and in. If a suspicious letter or package arrives from an unknown source, a visual screening can help you spot the most likely threats. These often are missing a return address, have restrictive markings (such as “personal"), have too much hand-applied postage, and so forth.

If, after doing this review, a letter or package raises red flags, you can use an X-ray mail scanner to look into large boxes. For smaller packages a millimeter wave scanner can detect smaller threats than an X-ray scanner.

We May Not Be Prepared, But We Can Be

Most organizations don’t have a comprehensive standard operating procedure for these conditions, and they shouldn’t necessarily be expected to. These aren’t standard times. How companies, organizations, and individuals deal with the current reality will define success and ultimately decide the outcome.

But now is the time to get a plan in place for reopening. Success relies on communication between management and the staff that fills out the mail center. The key is a meaningful and well thought-out process that involves all of the levels required to affect positive change and manage the inevitable frustrations of that change. If set-in-stone rules are mandated from above, primarily negative outcomes will most likely arise. On the other hand, if no guidance is provided and staff is left to fend for themselves, needed safety requirements will not be addressed. The best way to manage this situation is to approach it as a team with the goals of safety for all and efficient operations.

Step 1: Implement an initial plan that will get the mail center open and begin workflows. Expect this to be, at best, an 80 percent solution between the organization and the staff. Everyone involved—both management and mail center staff—should expect changes either with a major rewrite of the plan or tweaking the 20 percent to fine-tune a plan that worked pretty well out of the box.

Step 2: Plan for a time to step back and reevaluate the situation as soon as enough information is available. When reassessing the initial plan, ensure that the players can speak to any problems and explain the conditions, and then enforce or update policies to best solve the problems identified. Avoid including those who can do neither.

Step 3: Implement changes, identify key performance indicators (KPIs), and continually reassess. Continuously improve the mail center plans, policies, and procedures to keep improving on that initial 80 percent solution. To keep the plan moving forward and to assist further reassessments, the KPIs should be tangible and apply to a specific problem that they are designed to address. Continually reassess the effectiveness plan for both the management and the staff. This allows for minor adjustments and improvements as the new policy or plan becomes standardized within the organization.

While some people have been warning about the threat of a pandemic for years, every company has hundreds of potential threats to mitigate to be successful. There is always another threat on the horizon, and there is no way to tell with 100 percent accuracy which will force change.

As the entire world enters this new reality, we don’t know exactly how this is going to work out or which changes are permanent and which are temporary. The most important approaches for navigating the unknown are flexibility and patience, grounded by the fact this is unchartered territory for all involved. Although some might have an uneasy feeling about not going in with a definitive plan, now is the time to get ahead of the curve. Being agile and expecting changes is a solid course of action. Mail centers everywhere are trying to work through the same set of problems.


Will Plummer is the Chief Security Officer at RaySecur where he heads EODSecur remote support operations. He previously had a 25 year career with the Department of Defense as a Master Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician. He holds a master’s degree in National Security and Irregular Warfare.

Article © RaySecur, 2020