GAO report: Dogs continue to be No. 1 threat for mail carriers

In this March 2, 2010 file photo, letter carrier Kevin Pownall delivers mail in Philadelphia.
File,AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Delivering the mail can be dangerous and costly: dog bites, falling, being "struck by flying objects". How much are on-the-job injuries costing the United States Postal Service (USPS)? According to a new report, it's $3.7 billion.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked at 32,213 accident reports from postal workers in 2012, 36 percent of which occurred during mail delivery. The report found that "despite declines in USPS's OSHA illness and injury rate" delivering the mail remains a disproportionately dangerous task.

Bites, porches, vehicle collisions

The most common cause of injury: dog bites. Animal and insect bites are "among the most frequently reported most sever injuries" to mail carriers. Dog bites were the No. 1 threat to on-foot mail carriers, accounting for 17 percent of incidences leading to injury.

For on-foot mail carriers, 39 possible causes of injury were reported, ranging from sprains and falls to being "struck by flying objects". On rural routes, where drivers mostly remain in the mail truck, vehicle collisions were the most common cause of injury. Where postal workers drive to a neighborhood, park, make deliveries on foot, and then drive to a new area, slip-and-falls were the most common injuries that kept people out of work along these routes.

Regardless of route, the most prevalent cause of long-term ailment: repetitive motion injuries, such as rotator cuff problems stemming from the reach back to get mail too far behind you. The most common cause of restricted work activity and days off? Falling.

Nor gloom of night

Postal workers are compensated through the Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA), a program which provides cash and medical benefits for employees who are injured or disabled on the job. In 2012, postal workers accounted for 39 percent of all federal employees receiving workers comp from FECA, though they only make up 22 percent of the workforce.

"We're blue collar workers," says Ron Watson, a representative from the National Association of Letter Carriers, and the in-house expert on worker's compensation.

"Most federal employees work behind a desk. Mail handlers do manual labor. A letter carrier is out in the rain. Snow? Sleet? He's out there," said Watson. "It's an objectively dangerous job, compared to federal workers in general."

According to Watson, the increase in cost listed by GAO, from $2.2 billion to $3.7 billion in three years may be a misleading figure. The fluctuation in the amount of injury to USPS employees has been only a few percent in that same time frame.

According to Watson, the cost paid out for workers comp each year really comes out to about $1 billion. The calculation for the way compensation expenses are determined year to year alters, and there are expenses that build up from previous years, which may have led to the large increase in workers comp cited by the GAO.

For all employees that receive FECA money and benefits, the employing agency (the USPS in this case) is billed for a "charge back" at the end of the year.

USPS receives no annual funding or support from the federal government. Is that $1 billion in workers comp covered by selling stamps?

"Absolutely," says Watson. "None of that is coming from taxpayers."