Though they are rare, dangerous mail and packages can have potentially lethal consequences if not identified and handled correctly. Companies like VOTI Detection produce mailroom X-ray machines that can aid in detecting threats that more basic, manual methods may miss. Still, equipment like this can only do so much to keep mailrooms safe. So you need to use it as part of a more comprehensive setup.
This includes having the proper equipment and procedures in place to filter out suspicious packages — not just during the screening process, but before the mail even gets to the screening area. It also means training mailroom employees to use screening equipment properly, know what to do and where to go in an emergency, and adapt protocols to deal with specific types of threats. This article will give you a roadmap of best practices for designing a complete mailroom security system.
What is covered in this article
We’ll start with a brief explanation of what screening mail involves.
What is mailroom screening?
Mailroom screening is the process of using sensory techniques, scanning devices, and logical reasoning to determine whether or not pieces of mail may be suspicious or potentially dangerous. It also encompasses the steps to be taken if something suspect is found and/or a threat is identified.
Mail is sent to all sorts of different people and organizations around the world, and the level of security they need can affect the scope of their mail screening operations. For example, some companies may feel safe enough doing their inspection in-house, while others may contract it out to a specialized firm. In addition, some groups may invest in specific types of scanning equipment if they expect to encounter certain types of threats – such as radioactivity or biohazards – more often than others.
Speaking of threats, we’ll next take a look at some of the various types of dangerous mail that are commonly encountered.
5 types of mail threats to be on the lookout for
Mailroom threats can be tricky because they can come in many different forms and are sealed inside a (usually) opaque container. So it can be difficult to know exactly what you’re dealing with without actually opening the package, and by then it may be too late. So it’s best to use other clues and best practices to make an educated guess regarding what the threat could be and how to handle it.
With that said, here are five major groups of hazards you may come across during package screening:
This is the most common type of suspicious package, and its contents usually aren’t directly dangerous so much as they could be a threat if used improperly (or at all). Things you’ll find typically include drugs and weapons, but could also include other illegal or restricted items such as fake ID documents.
Contraband can be spotted by looking for things like oddities in the addresses or postage. Look for sloppy writing and spelling mistakes, made-up people or places, a return address that’s missing or is different from the postage marks, and other elements that seem inconsistent or out of place. These techniques can help you detect other types of dangerous mail, as well.
2. Bombs and explosive substances
Parcels and envelopes can hide improvised explosive devices. These can be set off when the package is opened or handled too roughly, or by a remote signal. So if you think you’ve found a mail bomb, don’t use a cell phone, walkie-talkie, or other radio device near it — the signal may accidentally trigger the detonator.
Fortunately, mail bombs have several clues that give them away if you know what to look for. They may have weird shapes or weights, make ticking or buzzing sounds, or be unusually difficult to open. They are also often wrapped with strangely high amounts of tape or other binding material, and you may even be able to see bomb components – like wires or aluminum foil – poking out of the package.
3. Dangerous chemicals
Toxic or corrosive chemicals can also be used as mail-based weapons. They can be difficult to detect, and can cause all sorts of injuries even with small amounts. They are typically powdered substances, but can also be liquids or aerosols.
Your senses are your best defenses with this type of threat. Look for odd stains, crystal formations, or other off-color spots on the package. You may even see the substance itself leaking out. If your eyes can’t get the job done, try gently handling the package to see if you can feel a powdered substance on the surface or inside. You may also be able to smell strange odors – or hear strange sounds, like liquid sloshing – coming from the package.
Harmful biological material can also be spread through the mail, either to cause immediate injury or to spread a contagious disease. Biohazards may give off some of the same warning signals as dangerous chemicals, but are even more tricky to deal with. They only need very small quantities to cause major problems — so small (think microscopic) that they can be nearly impossible to spot without specialized equipment.
5. Nuclear radiation
Even radioactive material can be hidden in an envelope or parcel with the intention to cause radiation poisoning. Like biohazards, radiation usually needs dedicated equipment to detect, as it’s nearly impossible to pick out with your senses alone. Also, radioactive materials are common in certain industries, so they may not be flagged as suspicious right away.
Dangerous radioactive mail is also often combined with a bomb to quicken the material’s dispersal and cause more widespread damage. However, this can actually be a saving grace of sorts, as it means many nuclear mail threats have the same warning signs as mail bombs.
How to develop & implement safe mail handling procedures in your mailroom
Creating an effective screening system for your organization’s mailroom means taking several different things into account. Basic security precautions are a must, but so is specialized protection and scanning equipment – not to mention the training needed to use it properly. You also need to have an emergency response plan that you can share and test with local authorities, and that should include proper procedures for after an incident is over.
Of course, there are several nuances that we go into more detail about in our guide on mailroom security best practices. But the following is a rough framework to get you up and running.
Step 1: Start with common-sense security
Standard security procedures are a good place to begin when it comes to keeping your mailroom safe. For example, put a fence around your mail center to keep intruders out, and have dedicated security personnel on-site to patrol and restrict access to vulnerable areas (like the loading dock).
Surveillance is also important, so use CCTV cameras to keep watch over sensitive parts of the facility. Another good idea is to have a temporary photo ID system in place so you know who is and isn’t supposed to be at your mail center on any given day.
You should also have tracking and inventory systems to know where packages and supplies are at all times, up until their delivery or use. That way, you’ll be able to know if an item is missing or isn’t supposed to be there. It will also help you segregate and monitor packages you have to hold onto because they can’t be delivered properly or are otherwise suspicious.
Step 2: Get the right screening and protective equipment
There’s only so much you can do with your senses and standard mailroom equipment to defend against mail threats. That’s why it’s important to outfit your facility with specialized mailroom screening equipment. Even more important is to make sure your mailroom workers know how to properly use it, so get the equipment manufacturers or vendors themselves to train employees on how it works at least once per year.
Personal protective equipment is a must as well. This includes smocks and N95 respirator masks as a standard, as well as Tyvek suits (including hood, gloves, and boots) for employees who may be working with biohazards. Make sure employees know how to properly put on, wear, take off, and dispose of PPE, as well as when all of these things should be done.
When selecting equipment, bear in mind the security requirements of your organization, as well as the types of threats you are most likely to face.
Step 3: Standardize and practice emergency plans
Make sure your mailroom workers and security personnel know what to do and where to go if they find dangerous mail. Start with a tabletop simulation so employees get a bird’s-eye view of where things like exits and important equipment are. Then regularly run drills to give employees on-the-ground experience and to gauge their preparedness.
When training employees, ensure that they understand they may need to adjust the actions they take based on the type of threat they encounter. For example, a chemical or biological hazard may necessitate shutting off the local HVAC systems to prevent contaminants from spreading. But for a bomb threat, you may want the HVAC system on and windows open to vent potentially explosive gases. Some threats may also require you to activate the fire alarm or otherwise evacuate the building, or to decontaminate with a shower afterwards.
Local emergency responders are key to successfully handling incidents, so make sure to involve them in training so employees can get comfortable working with them. This helps to prevent overreactions during a crisis. Also be sure to share your company’s emergency protocols with them so they can better predict what your employees will do if an incident occurs. Lastly, as mail threats change and evolve, it’s a good idea to jointly review and update your emergency response plans with local authorities at least quarterly.
Step 4: Come up with an incident follow-up strategy
What you do after an emergency can matter almost as much as what you do during one. That goes for your mailroom workers and security personnel’s safety, as well as your organization’s reputation. For example, you may want to let affected employees talk to health responders and company managers in order to better process and cope with what happened. However, you may also want to insist that only designated PR people talk to the press so that a qualified person represents your organization and explains the situation effectively to the public.
You’re also going to want to review, in cooperation with emergency workers, how well the incident was handled. Part of this is evaluating how closely the response matched the standardized emergency protocols you had developed. But it also includes looking at how the incident actually happened. Go over things like what the suspicious package looked like, where it came from, who may have previously handled it, and who was present when it was deemed a threat.
These types of reviews can help you plug holes in your operation’s security. This is also good information to share with other branches of your organization so they’ll be better prepared if they face a similar incident in the future.
One more thing to keep in mind is that suspicious package incidents usually turn into criminal investigations. This means that police and other authorities will likely need materials involved in a mail threat as evidence. Therefore, it’s important to train your employees to securely store suspicious packages once they are no longer deemed to be threatening, and to not discard or destroy any part of them until directed to do so by the authorities.
Types of mailroom screening equipment
There are many ways to integrate mailroom technology into your security process. But, again, what you actually need can depend on how high-profile your operation is. It can also depend on what types of hazards you’re most likely to encounter, based on the industry you’re in. Here are some examples of equipment that you might use.
1. Mailroom X-ray scanners
(Image credit: VOTI Detection)
Types of mail threats this combats: Mainly contraband and explosives
Mailroom X-ray scanners work by firing electromagnetic energy at objects at a high enough frequency to penetrate them. The energy that gets through then hits a sensor, which measures how much energy remains. The sensor uses that data to determine what an object’s shape is and what kind of material it’s made out of.
How it enhances your mailroom security: X-ray scanners, like the ones produced by VOTI Detection, are essential tools for seeing inside opaque packages to check for suspicious items. But some objects – notably electronics – contain a lot of parts packed into a small area, so it may be necessary to supplement X-ray scanners with other equipment to better detect threats.
2. Air samplers
Types of mail threats this combats: Chemical, some biohazards
Air sampling equipment generally works by passing air through an enclosed space that contains some sort of filter. The filter will then pick up any abnormal substances flowing through it, either wholly or through a chemical reaction.
How it enhances your mailroom security: Air samplers are a must if you work in an industry where you commonly work with dangerous chemicals, or you otherwise expect a threat from them. This is especially true when it comes to detecting harmful aerosols or other gases, which are difficult to pick out with your senses alone. For this reason, they can also be helpful in detecting some biohazards.
3. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) screeners
Types of mail threats this combats: Biohazards
A PCR machine uses bio-material paired with a heating and cooling cycle process to speed up the rate at which DNA replicates itself. This can cause a small sample of biological material to grow large enough that it can be properly identified.
How it enhances your mailroom security: Biohazards are a difficult threat to deal with because they only need microscopic quantities, invisible to the naked eye, to cause havoc. Sampling the air or a substance with a PCR machine will let you know if there is any sort of biological material present that may be harmful.
4. Radiation pagers and scanning equipment
Types of mail threats this combats: Radioactive
In general, equipment that scans for radioactivity uses electrochemical reactions to detect changes in energy output from the nearby area. It may then display them as a color-changing reaction on a piece of photographic film, or as a numeric readout on a digital screen.
Note that radiation can come in various forms (radio, X-rays, alpha, beta, gamma, neutron) and different intensities. So be sure to have equipment that’s tuned to the types of radiation you want to detect, and is sensitive enough to detect them.
How it enhances your mailroom security: Nuclear radiation is all but invisible to human senses and the typical mailroom scanner, so you’re going to need specialized technology to detect it. This is especially important in certain industries (like medicine or agriculture) that regularly use radioactive materials, as you need to be able to tell the difference between safe and dangerous levels of radiation.
Coming up with a secure screening and incident response system for your mailroom is a multi-layered process. It requires the right equipment, thorough training, and cooperation — not only between the different branches of your organization, but also with the local authorities whom you’ll be relying on if an emergency occurs. Make sure VOTI Detection’s line of X-ray scanners is part of your arsenal so you’ll have one less thing to worry about!