Walking along briskly and bantering with regular customers, letter carriers have a job that many people envy. It keeps them in good shape as well: Carriers can feasibly cover 10 miles in the course of one shift. But not all the residents are welcoming (think: dogs), and hauling around a full mailbag is equivalent to going hiking with a barbell attached to your shoulder.
Over the past 10 years, the volume of business-class mail (don’t let a letter carrier hear you call it “junk mail”) has shot up, and the maximum load for one mailbag has increased from 25 to 35 pounds. Pounding the pavement for long distances and venturing into private property on a daily basis also have their risks. Here are a few hazards mail carriers may face on any given day:
- Dog bites. Bowsers lying in wait for the unwary carrier may be standard fare for cartoonists, but to mail carriers dog attacks are no joke. One Chicago letter carrier, 15-year veteran Tom Andrew, says that dogs have attacked him numerous times as he’s been walking the route he’s had for the last eight years. Although he’s never been seriously injured, he says, carriers who have walked his route on his day off have been severely bitten by the same dogs that have menaced him.
Andrew has had to fend off one particular pit bull on three occasions, twice defending himself with pepper spray. “I drained [the can] on his face,” he says. “He just licked it off.” Andrew received training from the post office in how to defend himself if attacked, and says that the best tip is to put your mailbag between you and the dog, because the dog will attack the bag instead.
Postal unions also stress that you aren’t required to deliver mail any time you feel threatened by an animal. Instead, fill out a Dog Warning Card, and notify your supervisor of the problem. If a dog catches you by surprise, don’t run: Back up slowly, facing the dog. Postal unions also advise blocking doors with your foot, so a dog can’t rush outside and bite you, and say you should avoid sticking your fingers through a letter slot, where an animal might be waiting for you.
- Extreme weather. The post office’s vow to deliver the mail “through rain, snow, sleet, or hail, and the gloom of night” can cause extra risks for letter carriers, who are expected to do their job despite terrible weather. Slippery conditions caused by rain, sleet, or hail can result in some nasty falls, and Andrew says he has felt justified refusing work when there’s lightning. (He says one time a supervisor reprimanded him for refusing to work in a storm, telling him, “You don’t have to worry about lightning on your route, you’ve got too many trees.” Andrew held his ground and refused to do the route until the storm blew over, without suffering job repercussions. You’re not required to risk injury from icy steps, broken porches, or other hazardous conditions, however: Just fill out a Report of Hazard, Unsafe Condition, or Practices to report a problem to your supervisor.
- Leg and foot problems. Although walking the daily route is a good workout, carriers may develop symptomatic leg problems such as shin splints, muscle tears, and bunions. Andrew says he wears support braces all the time now, after developing painful bone spurs on his feet. If you have persistent pain in your feet or legs and you think it’s work-related, file an accident report with the Post Office and report the injury to the Post Office Medical Department. You should also see a doctor for treatment.
- Back problems. Letter carriers must be able to carry 35 pounds and often use shoulder bags that do not carry the weight evenly. More letter carriers are using rolling carts now to avoid back problems. Andrew’s advice: If you have a heavy load, don’t try to carry it all at once. Leave half at a drop-off point or in the car.
- Hand and arm injuries. Automated machines sort some of the mail into route delivery order for the carriers, but this is at best only partially helpful and may even cause harm. That’s because not all of the mail is sorted this way. “The carriers now have to deliver their routes with two or three different sets of sorted mail,” says Bob Williamson, president of the San Francisco chapter of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU). “That means they have to carry two to three different bundles in their arms at one time, and deliver the mail to the address from the automated machine and then deliver the mail that they’ve [sorted] themselves. So apparently that’s creating a lot of hand and arm injuries.” The solution? Combine the two piles before starting your route.
- Violence. Mail carriers also perform their work exposed to public view, which can leave them vulnerable to harassment and attack. While violence against a postal carrier in the suburbs or in small towns may be close to nonexistent, it’s a threat in big cities, as seen in the headlines in 1999. After spraying a Los Angeles Jewish Community Center with bullets, Buford Furrow Jr. shot and killed a Filipino-American letter carrier in a random act of racial hatred. Tragedies like this may be unavoidable, but postal carriers should have pepper spray on them at all times, according to the American Postal Workers Union. If you feel threatened in a particular neighborhood, ask for police protection when entering the vicinity.
American Postal Workers Union (APWU)
The world’s largest postal union, this group represents more than 330,000 United States Postal Service employees and retirees and nearly 2,000 private sector mail workers.
National Association of Letter Carriers of the U.S.A (NALC)
This association provides information and collective bargaining for primarily the letter-carrier segment of the postal service. Its 214,000 active members represent mainly urban carriers.
U.S. Postal Service
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Established in 1970, NIOSH is a federal research agency that makes recommendations to help employers prevent job-related injuries and illnesses.
Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)
Although it has no direct jurisdiction over federal agencies, OSHA develops and enforces safety and health regulations in the workplace, and federal agencies’ standards must be consistent with OSHA’s.
Wells JA, Zipp JF, Schuette PT, McEleney J. Musculoskeletal disorders among letter carriers. A comparison of weight carrying, walking & sedentary occupations. J Occup Med. 1983 Nov;25(11):814-20.
Bloswick, DS. Effect of mailbag design on Musculoskeletal Fatigue and Metabolic Load. Hum Factors. 1994 Jun;36(2);210-218.