Amazon packages, postal workers, and “being careful”

By | 2015-12-08T14:51:51+00:00 December 8th, 2015|3 Comments

He was in his truck, he was out of his truck.  He was in his truck, he was out of his truck.

On a recent walk in the neighborhood, I couldn’t help but notice my mailman’s pattern of work. He was in-and-out of his truck many times to bring packages up to my neighbors’ front doors.

“Lot of packages, eh?” I asked walking passed him.

“More and more,” he said, starting up the mail truck again and driving off.

A few houses up the street, he was out of his truck again as I again walked passed.

“It’s going to be a long day, eh?” I commented.

“Tis the season,” he said. “It will be like this till the end of the year.”

I watched him walked up the long sidewalk with steps along the way to the house’s front porch.

“You’re delivering packages now for Amazon, right?” I asked.

“Yeah, a lot of them,” he remarked.

“What happens when you have a big box or an awkward box?” I probed.

“I’m just careful,” he said. “They want us to use a hand cart, but my truck is full of packages and the mail. There’s no room for a hand cart.”

“How would you use a hand cart up all those steps anyway?” I asked.

He just smiled and got back into his truck. I yelled as he started back up his truck, “What do you do when you have to carry a 30 or 40 pound package?” 

“I just have to be careful,” he said.

Thinking about the safety of my neighborhood postal worker is not just a curiosity. The incidence rate of serious injuries—those requiring time off of work—is particularly high among USPS employees. (The rates are based on self-reported data from employers.) The USPS’s lost-time injury rate exceeds the rate of USDA’s food safety inspectors, the police force responsible for Capitol Hill, and border patrol agents. The lost-time incidence rate for USPS employees is 3.77 per 100 employees compared to 1.75 for all federal government employees.  There are only two federal agencies with higher rates: the National Cemetery Administration (8.16 per 100 workers) and the Bureau of Prisons (4.08 per 100 workers.)

A 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicated that 36 percent of all injuries suffered by USPS employees occurred among those delivering mail.  The report describes the kind of hazards that can lead to chronic injuries, such as:

“…repetitive motion activities, such as when a mail carrier develops a back, shoulder, or rotator cuff injury by repeatedly twisting and stretching to reach mail in the back of the delivery vehicle.”

No matter the type of mail delivery route:

“falls to the ground were among the most common circumstance leading to injury that resulted in either restricted work activity or days away from work. In addition, we found that repetitive motions were the most common cause of illness, regardless of severity or route type.”

Those injuries are costly and growing. GAO noted:

“USPS’s workers’ compensation expense for fiscal year 2012 was $3.7 billion, compared to $2.2 billion in fiscal year 2009, a 68 percent increase.”

The Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC)—an independent agency with oversight responsibility for the USPS—reported in July that the USPS failed to meet its FY 2014 performance goal on workplace safety. (One of the USPS’s responses to the PRC was they planned to “focus on at-risk employees and new employees who are less familiar with safe work practices.” (So much for addressing the hazards.)

All of this makes me wonder how much the new demands on postal workers were discussed in the “negotiated service agreement” between Amazon and USPS to deliver packages. How are packages supposed to fit into the mail trucks? Are the mail trucks really designed for a driver to get in and out safely? How much additional time is added to a postal worker’s route when she is expected to deliver packages, especially those that are too big to fit in a mailbox? And what about extended shifts so postal workers are delivering after dark?

The USPS has a written safety program that says all the right things: “

“Any occupational injury or illness can be prevented,” and “Employees are our most valued resource. Our employees must be provided a safe and healthful workplace.”

Yet there are some terrible examples of how the USPS ignores these principles. There’s this one involving USPS retaliating against an employee who raised safety concerns, or others involving serious, repeated, and willful safety violations (here, here, here.)

“I just have to be careful,” is not only the mindset of my neighborhood’s postal worker. In a USPS promotional video to recruit “city carrier assistants” (CCA) —the organization’s answer to contracted laborers or “temp workers.”

The 4-minute video features several CCAs describing the work:

  • “The job is strenuous. It takes a lot of body work with this job.”
  • “A lot of heavy lifting, you always have to use your legs.”
  • “You got to look up, you got to look down, you can’t be falling, you’ve to watch what you’re doing every step of the way.”
  • “Ice is the big thing, ice, snow. You have to be careful.”
  • “Everyday feels like an accomplishment because you fight to get through the conditions you are working in.”
  • “You need to be able to walk about 10 miles per day. If you’re not fit, you will become fit.”
  • “It’s exhausting, but once your body gets used to it.. It’s definitely a job that takes getting used to.”
  • “You know it is good exercise. I feel like I get an extra boost of energy….until I get home, anyway.” [At the end of the video, he says “I am proud to be a US postal officer, CCA” and he points to the USPS emblem on his uniform.”]

I know my neighborhood postal worker also takes a lot of pride in his work. I wonder if the USPS leadership is exploiting that attitude? If postal workers are inundated with safety messages about “being careful” or “getting your body used to it” that shifts responsibility away from USPS leadership—the ones who making decisions about delivery arrangements for Amazon. “Just being careful” is not an effective safety program for postal carriers who are now expected to deliver to people’s doorsteps 30 lb. bags of dog food, 50 lb. buckets of pool chlorine tabs, and more.


About the Author:

Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH
Celeste Monforton is a fellow in the Collegium Ramazzini; a lecturer at Texas State University; and professorial lecturer at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. She receives funding from the Public Welfare Foundation.


  1. Rebecca Lingenfelter December 9, 2015 at 10:21 am - Reply

    UPS has a training program to reduce these types of injuries. If data shows it works, the USPS needs to implement a “bootcamp” as well.

  2. Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH
    Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH December 9, 2015 at 10:50 am - Reply

    Thanks Rebecca. Do you have details on the UPS’s program? Many safety training programs still focus on “being careful” and don’t get to the heart of the problem—the hazards.

  3. Tony Oppegard December 15, 2015 at 1:22 am - Reply

    Good article, Celeste !

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