Letter carriers and mail handlers are no more likely to "go postal" than other workers, according to a report released yesterday after two years of study.
"Going postal" entered the lexicon as shorthand for employee violence after a spate of homicides by U.S. Postal Service workers. But a report by a Postal Service-mandated commission attempts to debunk the phrase, which has given rise to a movie of the same name and a computer game called "Postal."
Of 6,719 workplace homicides from 1992 to 1998, 16 were postal employees, and nine of those were killed by current or former co-workers. Postal Service workers are only one-third as likely as those in the national work force to be victims of homicide while at work, the USPS Commission on a Safe and Secure Workplace reported.
The data showed that retail employees were eight times more likely than postal workers to be killed at work and taxi drivers are 150 times likelier than letter carriers to be homicide victims at work, the report said.
"It is beyond reasonable doubt that 'going postal' is a bad rap. It's just not true. There is no safer place you could work or be than [at the] United States Postal Service," said commission chairman Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former secretary of health, education and welfare.
The 249-page study, which cost almost $4 million, was prepared by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Califano, who is president of the center, was named chairman because the Columbia University-based group won the contract to do the study, a Postal Service spokeswoman said.
The commission said it could not "compare with any precision" whether employees in other professions were any more or less likely than postal workers to kill colleagues rather than relatives or strangers.
Of 29 post office-related homicide incidents from 1986 to 1999, 15 current or former postal employees killed 34 of their colleagues and 21 non-postal workers fatally attacked 14 postal staffers, the report said. But the commission did not have data for all workplace homicides by co-workers in other professions.
John Challenger, who deals with workplace violence as chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm, said it did not come as any surprise that working in the retail trade was more dangerous.
"Convenience stores have always been susceptible because they run 24/7. They're located in all sorts of environments, including areas in cities with higher crime rates, so you can see how there's extra stress there," Challenger said.
But people don't talk about "going retail." Jerry Rubenstein, a psychologist at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, said that's because the public has developed a distorted picture of postal workers' propensity to commit violence. That is a consequence of the large number of Postal Service employees and the public nature of their job, which meant news organizations were more likely to get hold of the story, he said.
The Postal Service is one of the largest civilian employers in the country, with 900,000 federal workers.
Two of the most highly publicized workplace homicides were committed by postal workers. In 1986, letter carrier Patrick Henry Sherrill killed 14 co-workers and himself at the Edmond, Okla., post office. Five years later, Thomas McIlvane killed four co-workers and himself at the Royal Oak, Mich., post office.
In what it claims was the most comprehensive study of violence in the American workplace, the commission surveyed nearly 12,000 postal workers and 3,000 employees in the national work force.
Although it said postal workers were no more likely to be violent than other workers, the commission recommended that the Postal Service introduce a range of measures, including more careful screening of job applicants for signs of incipient violence. The commission also identified a backlog of employee grievances and urged the Postal Service to overhaul its dispute resolution processes. As of April, the Postal Service had more than 126,000 grievances awaiting arbitration.
Postmaster General William J. Henderson said yesterday: "The major findings we're in absolute agreement with and will take steps. . . . I would not call this a clean bill of health for employee and labor relations in the Postal Service."
Henderson promised to tackle the backlog of grievances. He added he would be discussing with the unions "a complete overhaul" of grievance procedures.
Safer, but Less Secure
Postal Service workers have a lower rate of workplace homicide than the average of all industries combined. . .
Annual workplace homicides per 100,000 workers
Postal Service 0.26
Private postal 0.50
Public admin. 1.66
Retail trade 2.10
. . . but they fear other employees more than the average worker does.
What employees fear most at work
U.S. Postal Service National
Employees 13% 5%
Equipment 12% 12%
Vehicles 12% 7%
Dogs 10% 1%
Supervisors 7% 2%
Customers 6% 12%
Other 3% 7%
Don't fear 38% 54%
SOURCE: U.S. Postal Service