King-Sized Effort

The 700,000-employee U.S. Postal Service and its unions deliver a partnership for a safer workplace.

THE United States Postal Service has dramatically reduced job-related injuries and illnesses by bringing management, unions, and employees together to identify potential hazards and health risks and develop programs to eliminate them. The Postal Service is transforming its workplace safety and health program into a model for both the public and private sector.

Since 2001, reported injuries and illnesses at USPS have decreased by 36 percent, or 28,000 incidents. These results are impressive, especially for an organization of its size and complexity: USPS has 700,000 employees, and its delivery and mail processing operations serve 142 million homes and addresses.

"The Postal Service believes every employee has the right to a safe workplace," Postmaster General John E. Potter has said. "We are committed to working with our partners to achieve this goal."

The dividends of a cooperative safety effort are improved employee morale, greater productivity, and better service for customers--essential for a Postal Service transforming to meet the challenges of electronic correspondence and competition from the private sector. Union cooperation has been the key to its success.

Measuring and Monitoring Safety Efforts
The USPS safety and health program builds on OSHA's safety and health program model. It measures performance, takes advantage of the latest technology, targets the causes of accidents, and holds managers accountable. The Postal Service employs a wide range of safety indicators, such as OSHA injury and illness and motor vehicle accident rates. Internal evaluations are used to measure program effectiveness. These evaluations have been incorporated into the USPS Pay for Performance program, which is a scorecard for evaluating postal officials and adjusting their pay based on how well they meet USPS goals.

Technology plays a big role in managing the safety and health program and tracking progress. A "safety toolkit" connects Web-based applications with hand-held and desktop PCs to enable safety professionals to more effectively schedule and conduct inspections, track abatement of deficiencies, respond to employee reports of hazards, and schedule and conduct program evaluations. USPS safety professionals use the Web-based Accident Reduction Center to plan accident reduction efforts and track their progress. They can identify and target accident types and causes, and also they can find best practices and proven countermeasures. All managers can easily track progress on inspections, program evaluations, accident reduction targets, and other indicators.

The USPS safety program uses a variety of communication tools to motivate and engage employees. Most notably, the award-winning communication series "Safety Depends on Me" has raised awareness of safety practices and the consequences of unsafe acts. Through videos, posters, safety talks, and other means, employees get poignant messages about the major causes of accidents, such as inattentive driving and slips and falls.

Effective Partnerships
While employee participation has always been a key part of safety programs at USPS, its safety management recognized it needed to go a step further to firmly establish safety as part of the corporate culture. USPS has forged productive and innovative partnerships with its unions and with OSHA to reduce the risk of injury to postal workers.

The Postal Service's four major unions--the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), National Postal Mail Handlers Union (Mail Handlers), and National Rural Letter Carriers' Association (NRLCA)--participate in the USPS Voluntary Protection Program, an OSHA-based initiative to recognize the safest workplaces in the nation. In addition, USPS has a partnership with NALC on reducing carrier injuries and illnesses and an ergonomic strategic partnership with APWU, the Mail Handlers, and OSHA. These partnerships have reduced accidents and injuries and have allowed USPS employees to work smarter, not harder.

"Any time we can reduce the chances of our members getting hurt and avoid the resulting pain and suffering that goes along with an injury, we've hit a home run," said John Hegarty, president of the Mail Handlers. NRLCA's president, Dale Holton, said his union hopes through the VPP partnership "to work together to reduce motor vehicle accidents involving our members, which is the number one cause of fatalities to the rural carriers' membership."

"Safety at the workplace is a great unifier between labor and management," agreed William H. Young, president of the NALC. "A safe workplace is a benefit to both. An unsafe workplace hurts both. Together with postal management, we are committed to making every aspect of our jobs as safe as they can be, protecting ourselves, our customers, and our postal colleagues and, in the long run, helping to make the Postal Service a more productive and efficient operation."

Cooperative attention to ergonomics and safety by management and the unions, especially through VPP, has significantly improved the working environment. Communication is better, and the result is a safer workplace.

Lifting, Bending, Reaching, Pushing
The challenge faced by the Postal Service, while not unique in its nature, certainly is notable in its scope. USPS is one of the largest employers in the world. Most of its 700,000 employees are involved in the physical act of moving the mail. Historically, that has put employees at risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders from lifting, lowering, pushing and pulling, carrying, and keying tasks. These are typically injuries to the muscles, tendons, nerves, or discs, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and herniated disc.

USPS started to implement the Ergonomic Risk Reduction Process (ERRP) in 2003, focusing initially on Processing and Distribution Centers, facilities where the physical demands are among the greatest. Based at the time only on handshake agreements among the unions, management, and OSHA, USPS began a cooperative process of identifying and addressing ergonomic risk factors as a step toward reducing the number of musculoskeletal injuries. This handshake partnership was formalized when Postmaster General Potter, then-Assistant Secretary for OSHA John Henshaw, Mail Handlers Union President Hegarty, and APWU President William Burrus signed the Ergonomic Strategic Partnership. This agreement committed the partners to the success of the ERRP that had been started a few months earlier and allowed its extension into more postal facilities.

Under this cooperative arrangement, the partners work together to identify and reduce the ergonomic factors that contribute to musculoskeletal injuries caused by lifting, lowering, reaching, bending, pushing, and other activity that is an everyday part of the postal worker's life both on and off the job. The heart and soul of the program is the site core team, which consists of union and management members. A local OSHA representative works with each site team, either by attending meetings in person or by communicating with team leaders. The team is trained to identify ergonomic risk factors and come up with appropriate solutions.

The changes made as a result of these partnerships include adjusting the height of pallets with portable lifts, adjusting shelf heights, using mechanical equipment to stack hampers, and making it easier to open trailer doors. For example, the core site team in one ERRP facility learned that over the course of a year, four workers had strained their shoulder muscles while unhooking the trailer from a tractor-trailer. After an analysis by the team, dock employees developed a tool with a longer handle, which the maintenance staff was able to make. In a similar way, another ERRP team adjusted the motor drive on a facility's bay door to make it easier to open.

OSHA has said the partnership lets it work cooperatively with USPS and its unions to reduce MSDs. Almost 37 percent of the Postal Service's total injuries and illnesses are related to ergonomics, so the agency anticipates making a significant impact.

ERRP has now been implemented at 69 mail processing sites and there are plans to expand the program to 93 sites by September 2005. The goal is to have 175 ERRP sites by early 2008.

The next challenge is to bring the ergonomics process to customer service. USPS is working with the APWU members and the mail handler and letter carrier unions to replicate the success of ERRP for mail delivery employees.

A Shining Star in Safety
Only the safest workplaces in the nation get a "Star" from OSHA. It is the top award given by the OSHA VPP, which was developed as a partnership among management, labor, and OSHA to recognize employers whose facilities with exemplary health and safety programs. In other words, VPP recognizes the best of the best in the field of safety and health.

The Postal Service first became involved with VPP in June 2001 when the Pittsburgh Air Mail Center and the Albany Vehicle Maintenance Facility were accepted into the program. The entrance process clearly indicates VPP sets the membership bar high. For example, OSHA will not even consider a facility for inclusion in the program unless its unions are fully on board and agree to participate. By that standard alone, the verbal support for VPP by four postal unions demonstrates throughout USPS that both parties take safety seriously and are dedicated to making this partnership work.

Second, the VPP application is extremely thorough and rigorous. Sites under consideration must already have an incident rate below their industry counterparts. They must submit to a wall-to-wall inspection and top-to-bottom program review by an OSHA team and representatives from an outside company (usually a VPP member). This is a critical element in the program because it establishes a mentoring relationship around health and safety that lasts well beyond a site's acceptance into the program. For example, the Albany facility was visited by representatives from nearby General Electric. This was a particular honor in light of the fact GE has been one of the leaders in VPP since its founding more than 20 years ago. GE remains a mentor to the Postal Service in Albany and in other areas where both have facilities.

To date, 20 postal sites are participating in VPP, and these represent the range of Postal Service facilities. Each site, like any VPP participant, must submit an annual self-evaluation and undergo a full on-site re-evaluation every three years. Having set the health and safety bar high for admission to VPP, OSHA demands that employers keep making progress or lose their membership in the program.

As with its work in ergonomics, participation in VPP pays off for the Postal Service in a number of ways. At the Omaha Processing and Distribution Center, a VPP Star facility, injuries are down by approximately 70 percent, employee survey scores are up, productivity is up, and the number of grievances is down.

Through its safety and health program, the Postal Service is demonstrating its commitment to employees and the mission of the federal government through OSHA to protect the American worker. USPS is learning from its private-sector mentors, and as a recognized leader in safety and health programs it is sharing its knowledge with private-sector companies and government agencies.

Everybody benefits when accidents and injuries are reduced. A culture that emphasizes partnership is proving itself to be good for employees, good for the Postal Service, and, ultimately, good for customers.

This article appeared in the September 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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