Mail packages come in all different shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, that means mail-borne threats can, too. Plus, not all mail processing facilities deal with the same kind of mail. And some may encounter certain types of threats more than others, depending on who they’re processing mail for.
Still, there are some similarities between how different types of dangerous mail work. So there are steps you can take to reinforce the security of your organization’s mail operations, regardless of what type of threat you may face. These mailroom security best practices will be the focus of this article.
What is covered in this article
- Best mailroom security training & equipment protocols (9)
- Mailroom security best practices: readiness for specific threats (6)
- Mailroom security threat protocols to have in place (11)
- Best mailroom security procedures for after an incident occurs (7)
- All other general security best practices for your mailroom (9)
These guidelines are based on a document released by the US Interagency Security Committee in late 2012. They are not VOTI Detection’s official policies, and should not be substituted for the procedures your own organization has put in place.
Best mailroom security training & equipment protocols (9)
Proper mailroom security training requires a combination of having the right equipment on hand and instructing employees on how to use it properly – both on a daily basis and in an emergency. It also demands that your mail workers know how to operate in sync with first responders to an incident if one occurs, and vice-versa.
1. Get special screening equipment to aid detection
(Image credit: VOTI Detection)
Invest in screening equipment for detecting different types of mail threats. Some, such as X-ray scanners and vapor trace detectors, may be able to detect multiple different types. Choose the ones that are most appropriate for your organization’s size, and the types of threats you may be susceptible to.
2. Have only properly-trained personnel use screening equipment
Have the company that makes or sells the screening equipment you purchase directly train mailroom employees on its use, and repeat this training at least once a year. Also, all other employees not trained in the use of screening equipment should not be allowed to use it.
3. Personal protective equipment is a must as well
Enforce a dress code that keeps your workers safe. At minimum, employees should wear smocks and N95 respirator masks. Those who may potentially be exposed to biohazards should also be equipped with Tyvek suits, including a hood, gloves, and boots.
4. Train employees on how to properly use PPE
Mail employees should be trained on how to equip, properly wear, remove, and discard personal protective equipment (PPE). For example, mailroom employees should put on PPE before entering the screening area and then take it off before leaving. Used PPE should be put in sealed containers when taken off, and should remain in the screening area until all mail that day checks as clean. It should then be disposed of daily.
5. Conduct annual suspicious mail training
All employees should receive training on how to spot and handle different types of suspicious mail at least once a year.
6. Have standardized plans for an emergency
All mailroom employees should know the proper protocols for handling suspicious mail, including contacting and dealing with authorities, as well as any follow-up actions needed.
7. Plan and practice emergency logistics and procedures
Mailroom managers and organization security should regularly run suspicious mail simulations and evaluate how well mailroom workers handle them. Use tabletop plans first to help mailroom employees visualize where important equipment is and where they need to go. Then run simulations in the actual mailroom environment.
8. Train mailroom workers alongside local emergency authorities
When running suspicious mail simulations, involve the authorities likely to be called to a mailroom incident so that employees can learn how to work properly with them. This can help to prevent mistakes caused by overreactions during an emergency.
9. Regularly update and share emergency response plans
The formal mailroom emergency response plan should be reviewed and updated at least once every 3 months. In addition, once updated, it should be shared among mailroom workers, company security personnel, and first responders.
Mailroom security best practices: readiness for specific threats (6)
If you suspect that your organization may be vulnerable to specific types of dangerous mail, you need to have the proper equipment and facilities in place to counteract them.
10. X-ray scanners are standard
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X-ray scanners are essential tools for seeing inside opaque packages. They can be used in combination with by-hand searches to find contraband items in the mail, such as drugs, firearms, or knives. They’re also great for detecting bombs hidden inside envelopes or parcels.
11. Some security dogs can be used to sniff out mail bombs
Certain K-9 units in policing and security are trained to detect bomb components through smell. Depending on how high-profile your organization is and how secure you need your mail to be, you might want to consider enlisting their assistance. Make sure they conduct scans on delivery vehicles, or at least before the mail reaches the screening station.
12. Use air samplers to continuously screen for chemical threats
Poisonous or otherwise dangerous chemicals can be sent through the mail as weapons. To defend against them, install air sampling systems both at the loading dock and inside the mailroom. They should be constantly monitored by security personnel, but should also be able to automatically alert employees to danger if it detects something hazardous.
13. Invest in negative pressure systems and PCR equipment for biohazards
Your mail screening facility should be designed with a negative pressure system to defend against biohazards. This system should begin at the loading dock and include dedicated screening areas, quarantine rooms, and HVAC hardware. It should also have polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment installed to test for the presence of dangerous biomaterial.
14. Get radiation detection equipment for both your facility and employees
Your facility should have radiation detection equipment installed that can scan mail delivery trucks, both as they approach your mail facility and when they’re at the loading dock. These systems should be constantly monitored by security personnel. Employees should also carry radiation pagers to alert them to potentially dangerous radioactivity that may have somehow slipped past the initial sensors.
15. Give mailroom workers a technical support hotline
Make sure your mail screeners always have access to emergency technical support from company security personnel. It may come in handy if they need help with a suspicious package or item.
Mailroom security threat protocols to have in place (11)
What happens if your instincts and/or your mailroom screening equipment tell you that a package you find is potentially dangerous? Here are some general best mailroom security procedures to follow if you encounter a threat, including some specific rules when dealing with particular types of hazards.
16. Immediately separate suspicious packages from other mail
Items identified as suspicious should be taken out of the mail stream immediately and, if safe to do so, kept in isolation until determined not to be a danger by security agents or first responders.
17. Make a record of why a package was deemed suspicious or threatening
If it is safe to do so, mailroom employees should write down a quick list of features of a potential mail threat that made it seem suspicious. Or, better yet, they should take a picture of the package. This can end up being useful information for security reviews or criminal investigations later.
18. Minimize handling of suspected threats
If mailroom employees determine that a package is an immediate potential threat, they should not try to open it, shake it, or let multiple people handle it. They should also not attempt to smell, taste, or touch any substance on the package or leaking out of it, or clean up anything that falls out of the package.
19. Leave potentially dangerous packages in isolated, open areas
Mail workers should place a piece of suspected dangerous mail on an open, stable surface to keep it visible and minimize accidental movement. They should not put it in water or an enclosed area, such as a desk drawer or filing cabinet. However, if a package is inside an X-ray scanner that detects a mail bomb, they should leave the package where it is.
20. Seal or cover chemical, radioactive, or biological threats if you can
If your workers suspect a package contains a chemical, radioactive, or biological threat, they should place it in a sealed container or throw some sort of covering over it if it is safe to do so. This can help to impede the spread of the contaminant.
21. Be careful with radio-based equipment around suspected bombs
If your mail employees have reason to believe that a suspicious package is actually a mail bomb, they should not use radio-based devices – such as cell phones or walkie-talkies – in the immediate vicinity. Their signals could accidentally set the bomb off. Instead, workers should wait until they are a safe distance away (i.e. out of the building) if they need to use them.
22. Safely and swiftly spread word of a potential threat
As quickly and safely as possible, mailroom workers who discover a suspicious package should alert other employees. They should also notify their manager, their organization’s security team, the building management representative (if the building is managed by a third party), and local law enforcement & emergency responders as appropriate. There should be a standardized procedure for who to call, and when.
23. Isolate the area around the suspected threat
Have everyone leave the immediate area around a suspected piece of dangerous mail. In doing so, they should close and (if able) lock all doors to the room to prevent anyone else from getting in. In addition, if they suspect a chemical, radioactive, or biohazard threat, they should close all windows to the room and shut off the local HVAC system (if possible) to prevent the contaminant from spreading.
24. Evacuate the building if necessary
If someone suspects a mail bomb threat, they should request an evacuation of the building when contacting the authorities. In addition, if a package is emitting strong smells, vapors, smoke, or other effects that are visibly causing illness, they should activate the nearest fire alarm.
25. Decontaminate ASAP if you think you’ve been exposed to a dangerous substance
Anyone who suspects their clothing and/or skin has been exposed to a dangerous chemical, biological, or radioactive substance should wash their hands thoroughly as soon as they can. In addition, you should take off all clothing that may have come in contact with the substance and place it in a sealed container. Having a full shower as soon as possible is also a good idea.
26. Coordinate communication with authorities through the mailroom manager and/or security personnel
The local mailroom manager and/or designated security workers should be the only ones coordinating with police and emergency responders when they arrive. Additionally, the mailroom manager should brief other employees on what’s going on and give regular updates on the situation.
Best mailroom security procedures for after an incident occurs (7)
Your emergency plans should also include directions for what to do after first responders and other authorities arrive on the scene to help out. This is important not only for keeping your mail workers safe, but also for protecting your organization and its reputation.
27. Get employees briefed on medical attention if they need it
As soon as possible, get health and safety first responders to talk to employees involved in finding the suspicious package. Employees who may have been injured or exposed to a harmful substance should be notified of any necessary or recommended follow-up medical attention, beyond on-site first aid.
28. Trace contact with the threat
Once they are safe, mail workers involved in the incident should work together to make a list of all people who were in the nearby area when the suspicious package was discovered, or who may have handled the package. This will inform reviews and investigations later.
29. Collect samples of a biohazard for testing
If someone suspects the mail threat is biological in nature, they should have mailroom managers or designated security workers request that first responders collect samples of it (if possible) for further testing. Properly-equipped personnel may be allowed to do this as well.
30. Control the communication flow
Employees should be allowed to talk to human resources personnel and other company management to discuss what happened and what should be done next. However, they should not give any information to the media about the incident; leave that to the authorities and designated company PR people.
31. Direct all employees to avoid cleaning up or disposing of mail threats
Dangerous mail and its contents may be needed by police and other authorities as evidence in criminal or other types of investigations. So it is critical that all pieces of a suspicious package be preserved and stored securely until no longer needed for analysis. That means all mail facility employees should be directed to not destroy or tamper with any part of a suspicious package.
32. Review the response to the emergency
Mail facility staff and security personnel should work together with local authorities and first responders to evaluate how well the mail threat was handled.
33. Share details of the incident with other organization branches
The local mailroom manager should compile a report on the suspicious mail emergency and share it with managers of other organization branches, especially other mail facilities. This will help them plan their response in case they encounter a similar threat.
All other general security best practices for your mailroom (9)
Handling mail is a sensitive operation, both in what’s being delivered and in the potential ways mail can be used to cause harm over long distances. As such, it should incorporate safety measures that other tight-security industries take. Here are a few examples.
34. Process mail offsite if possible, especially if from express couriers
The easiest way to achieve mailroom security is to outsource screening to a company that specializes in it. If this is not feasible, then a good practice is to have your mail screening facility located away from your organization’s headquarters or main campus. It should also be in an inconspicuous and/or low-traffic location to limit the risk of unauthorized people entering.
This is especially desirable if your company handles packages from express couriers, as you don’t want shortened delivery deadlines to supersede making sure the mail is safe.
35. Secure mail facilities with physical barriers
When it comes to securing a mail screening facility, even the most basic physical security can help. Put up fences around the building to impede would-be intruders, and outfit doors with locks to keep people from getting into places where they shouldn’t be. If you’re going to locate a mail facility in a multi-business building complex, be sure to pick one that has these things already in place.
36. Use surveillance equipment and guards to keep an eye on things
Make sure each mail center has a separate closed-circuit television camera system that is consistently monitored. It is also a good idea to have dedicated security personnel at each site to patrol sensitive areas at all times of the day.
37. Use temporary photo ID to keep track of who comes and goes
Each mail center should also have a photo ID badge system in place, including for visitors. That way, you’ll know who is or isn’t supposed to be on-site at any given time, and can trace potential suspects if an incident occurs.
38. Properly manage the loading dock
The loading dock is the point where mail enters and leaves a facility, so it’s a critical area in terms of security. That means you should restrict access to it to only designated delivery trucks and mail workers.
You should also make sure the loading dock is designed so the entry point for inbound mail and the exit point for outbound mail are far enough apart. This will help to avoid a potential chemical, biological, or radioactive mail threat contaminating additional mail.
39. Track all inbound and outbound packages
Use an internal system of generated barcodes to track all pieces of inbound mail through the initial (i.e. tub/tray) screening process. In addition, all outbound mail should be barcoded and tracked from reception to screening process to final delivery.
40. Securely store packages that can’t be delivered
If a package can’t be delivered for some reason, it should be stored in a secure place within the mail center until it can be properly delivered.
41. Track supply shipments and compare them against manifests
When receiving supplies, have mailroom employees cross-check the contents with the delivery manifest. This will identify if any items are missing or stolen, or if something potentially suspicious has been added.
Along the same lines, supplies meant for the mail facility should be entered into a separate tracking or inventory system. This will help to alert employees to item theft or the addition of something suspicious.
42. Screen and securely store supplies until needed
All supply shipments should be screened and then stored in a secure location. They should only be taken out when ready to be used or shipped out.
Again, these are merely optimal suggestions from American security experts and are provided by VOTI Detection for information purposes only. Every mailroom is different in terms of what types of mail it handles, and how much. So your approaches to security may differ from what is listed here. Please consult your organization’s mailroom security handbook for official procedures.