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POSTAL PROTECTION <br> FEAR OF ANTHRAX EXPOSURE HAS SPURRED THE U.S. POSTAL SERVICE TO HAND OUT MASKS AND GLOVES TO EMPLOYEES, AMONG OTHER MEASURES, TO KEEP THEM SAFE

The U.S. Postal Service, facing probably the biggest challenge in its history, is instituting safeguards here and across the country to protect its employees and customers amid fear over several recent anthrax cases spread through the mail.

The Postal Service is handing out masks and latex-type gloves to employees who want to wear them, while making some internal changes to prevent airborne particles from circulating within postal facilities.

It will be doing a nationwide mailing to reassure Americans about the nation's mail delivery, but caution them as well.

"We're doing the best we can on a daily basis to assure our employees we're doing everything we can to protect them and our customers," said Vic C. Laudisio, a spokesman for the Buffalo area postmaster. "Our best defense here is to have knowledgeable postal employees and educated citizens."

The protective measures are focused on central mail facilities such as the William Street post office, which has about 1,500 employees who sort all the mail going in and out of the region.

Two Washington, D.C., postal workers died of inhalation anthrax Monday, one week after an anthrax-laced letter arrived at Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office. Three other postal workers -- one in New Jersey, where the letter was postmarked -- are hospitalized with inhalation anthrax, the more serious form of the disease.

While no one is panicking here, the news has local postal employees jittery.

"I would say a high percentage are scared," said Sabato Parisi, 54, of Buffalo, a letter repairer at the William Street facility. "They're nervous. They have no control over it, you know?"

In fact, customers at the William Street post office Wednesday would have noticed employees behind the counter wearing gloves or a mask or both. Postal workers leaving the William Street building Wednesday said roughly half the building employees chose not to wear the gear, while the other half did, including Walter Tate.

"I'm not nervous, but I'm being careful," said Tate, 59, of Buffalo, a mail handler who wears gloves on the job.

Not only are workers at the main facility on edge, but so are mail carriers throughout metro Buffalo.

"The carriers are becoming more and more concerned and frightened every day with each new outbreak," said Robert J. McLennan, president of the letter carriers union in Western New York. "There's great concern our colleagues in Washington were tested as fast as congressional staff were."

But McLennan and a few William Street employees generally were "satisfied" with the steps Postal Service management has taken.

Besides providing gloves and masks, the Postal Service changed the way it cleans its sorting machines -- vacuuming the equipment rather than blowing it clean -- to prevent dust and particles from spreading into the air. Building fans are no longer circulating, for the same reason, Laudisio said.

Stronger, antibacterial cleaners will be used for routine building maintenance. Also, the Postal Service plans to spend millions to buy machines that sanitize the mail, though it's still unclear when -- or if -- the technology will be used in the Buffalo region.

The topic has dominated conversation among the workers at the William Street facility, said Robert Smith, a mail handler there.

"We just hope the post office takes care of us," said Smith, 38, of Buffalo. "They give us information about it every day, and that's basically all they can do. You never really know how you're going to react until something happens."

About 137 million households will receive a mailing from the Postal Service describing how to detect a suspicious letter and what to do if one is delivered.

It urges caution, but also common sense, Laudisio said. The dangers to the general public are still minuscule, Laudisio said. In fact, few people realize the Postal Service deals with 20 to 30 letter bombs each year, officials said.

Only a few letter carriers locally have chosen to wear gloves, McLennan said. Some feel they don't want to send the wrong message to the customers on their routes.

"We don't want to create a false impression that there is a great danger getting your mail," McLennan said.

Also, mail carriers -- known for delivering through rain, sleet, snow and wartime -- take a lot of pride in their job, McLennan said. They don't want to let terrorists intimidate them.

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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