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Postal unions summon OSHA

The workers complain managers told them to keep sorting mail as the massive Ybor fire threatened the building.

By WAYNE WASHINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2000


TAMPA -- Two postal workers unions have asked the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate whether supervisors at an Ybor City post office failed to follow basic safety procedures as a massive fire spread toward their building this month.

The American Postal Workers Union and the National Association of Letter Carriers sent a four-page fax to OSHA on Tuesday detailing concerns raised by the fire May 19 that destroyed an apartment complex and the post office.

American Postal Workers Union president Richard Phillips said workers were told to keep sorting mail even as the fire across the street raged out of control and approached their building.

"The employees in the Ybor City post office were not alerted to the existence of a large fire to the southwest of the facility," the complaint to OSHA said. "No mandatory evacuation order was given. The electricity in the facility had gone out a number of times. Employees were instructed to continue sorting mail."

The unions also claimed:

No evacuation order was given.

No fire alarm was sounded.

There was no clear evacuation plan.

Natural gas lines running to postal vehicles were not disconnected.

No fire drill had been conducted at the post office for at least six months.

The building had no sprinkler system.

Bridget Robertson, a customer relations coordinator for the United States Postal Service, would not comment on the specific complaints.

But she said postal employees "were escorted from the building before it even caught fire."

"All of our safety procedures were in place," Robertson said.

Larry Falck, OSHA's area director, said Congress passed a law a year ago that allows his agency to levy fines against the postal service or demand safety improvements if it substantiates safety violations. Previously, he said, OSHA could not fine the postal service because of its quasi-federal status.

The fire broke out about 9 a.m. at the apartment complex and burned for about two hours before spreading to the 21,000-square-foot post office. The unions said 56 employees were working inside that morning.

Phillips said workers were left to scramble out of the building on their own.

There were several minor injuries when workers forced open a section of a security fence that blocked their escape.

Inside was the mail for all 44 routes the Ybor post office served. Much of it was lost to the flames, which destroyed the $4-million building.

Also damaged were a number of postal service vehicles fueled by natural gas and connected to a natural gas source at the building.

"I don't believe (postal employers) had any idea of the intensity of the heat," Phillips said. "I don't think they endangered people in that way. But the bottom line is that if they had erred on the side of caution and evacuated the building, the mail that was damaged would have been safely delivered that day and the vehicles would have been moved."

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