This report responds to a request from the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to review measures the U.S. Postal Service has implemented regarding opioid safety preparedness. Specifically, the congressional inquiry focused on Postal Service procedures, training, and communications related to employee exposure risks to synthetic opioids and opioid overdose medication.
Our objective was to assess measures the Postal Service has implemented to prepare its workforce for the risks posed by shipments of synthetic opioids.
Opioids are substances that produce morphine-like effects and are primarily used for pain relief. Synthetic opioids are man-made drugs that mimic the effects of natural opioids. There has been a dramatic increase in the availability of dangerous synthetic opioids, with a majority being structural derivatives of the synthetic drug fentanyl.
There has also been increased congressional interest in the flow of opioids through the U.S. mail system, both internationally and domestically. Consequently, any mailpiece containing synthetic opioids is a potential danger to those who are involved in the acceptance, processing, and delivery of mail.
What the OIG Found
The Postal Service has not implemented specific measures to prepare its entire workforce for risks posed by synthetic opioids shipped through the mail. The Postal Service generally considers these risks to fall within its established suspicious mail protocols. However, different types of substances, such as synthetic opioids, can pose differing levels of risk. Considering the national concern associated with the opioid epidemic, we believe opportunities exist to increase employee awareness of risks associated with opioid exposure and the importance of adhering to established suspicious mail protocols.
While there have been specific measures implemented to educate and protect U.S. Postal Inspection Service inspectors regarding synthetic opioid exposure, the Postal Service has not provided specific synthetic opioid information to all of its employees. Employees are also not always adhering to existing protocols when handling hazardous or suspicious mail. We found indications of deviation from proper suspicious mail handling procedures in 18 of 97 incident documentation forms reviewed. One incident involved an unidentified white powder that leaked from the mail onto processing equipment. The supervisor reportedly instructed employees to continue running the equipment without properly responding to the powder.
Further, we were not able to validate that mandatory stand-up talks specific to suspicious mail protocols were completed for all employees for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Additionally, no Postal Service employees, other than select inspectors, were provided opioid overdose medication and it has not been made available at any Postal Service facility. However, at the exit conference in May 2018, the Postal Service provided its plan to deploy opioid overdose medication at 705 facilities nationwide.
Finally, there is a need to promote awareness of the Postal Service’s packaging requirements for hazardous items among law enforcement agencies and others who are approved to ship controlled substances through the mailstream.
These conditions occurred because management has not addressed opioids as a stand-alone threat and contends that their established protocols are sufficient to cover all unknown powders and substances, including synthetic opioids. In addition, employees may not fully understand hazardous and suspicious mail protocols or the potential consequences of noncompliance.
Further, there was no formal guidance communicating mandatory requirements to conduct suspicious mail stand-up talks at a prescribed frequency, no method for identifying who should receive the stand-up talk, and no formal procedure for certifying completion of stand-up talks.
Without a strategic approach to addressing the risks of exposure to opioids in the mail —including clear, specific communication, education, and training — the Postal Service is not taking every precaution to ensure the safety and health of its employees.
What the OIG Recommended
We recommended management communicate to all employees information specific to synthetic opioids, identify which learning management system courses should be mandatory, and formally document the prescribed frequency for conducting suspicious mail stand-up talks. We also recommended management execute the deployment strategy for opioid overdose medication; develop a communication strategy to increase awareness of Publication 52: Hazardous, Restricted, and Perishable Mail to approved mailers; and assess package marking requirements for controlled substances.