What to do if threatened by anthrax

After the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in 2001, terrorism has become a more serious concern in the United States. One way that terrorists have targeted workplaces is by using the disease anthrax as a weapon. In 2001, terrorists deliberately spread anthrax by sending letters with a powder containing anthrax spores, causing 22 cases of anthrax infection. Workplaces can help increase safety and reduce anxiety by educating and preparing employees for such events. The following information may help.

Employers can start by determining the vulnerability of the workplace to terrorism. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers an Anthrax Risk Reduction Matrix that allows workplace classification according to risk as Green Zone, Yellow Zone, or Red Zone workplaces. Once employers are aware of which Zone their facility falls into, they can then take the appropriate actions when faced with an anthrax threat. These actions are as follows:

    • Green Zone – Most workplaces are Green Zone workplaces. If a Green Zone workplace finds a suspicious package, they should try to figure out who sent it and then call the sender to ask about it. If the package contains traces of a suspicious powder, workers should attempt to identify a logical source of this powder, such as construction debris or spilled baking soda. If a logical source cannot be located, employees need to contact 9-1-1

    • Yellow Zone – Yellow Zone workplaces should follow all the same steps as Green Zone workplaces. These workplaces are at greater risk, and will most likely already have Emergency Action Plans (EAPs) in case a threat occurs. If a suspicious package or powder is identified and a source or explanation cannot be found, the workplace should initiate their EAP immediately. If a threat is received by phone call, e-mail, or letter, all employees should be notified quickly and the EAP should take effect

    • Red Zone – Red Zone workplaces that find a suspicious package or receive a threat message should notify the facility’s authorities who are in charge of controlling anthrax, call 9-1-1, and initiate their EAP immediately. Red Zone workplaces may safeguard workers by requiring mail handlers to wear gloves and keeping disposable respirators on hand in case of a threat. Respirators should be NIOSH-approved and at least as protective as an N95 respirator

Workers that regularly handle mail are the most likely to be at risk of anthrax exposure. Employers can protect their workplaces by training these individuals to recognize and properly handle suspicious packages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some characteristics of suspicious packages that may contain anthrax include:

    • Inappropriate or unusual labeling such as excessive postage, handwritten or poorly typed addresses, threatening language, misspellings of common words, strange or missing return addresses, postmarks from a city or state that does not match the return address, incorrect titles or a title without a name, an address that does not contain a specific person, or restrictive phrases like “Personal,” “Confidential,” or “Do not x-ray”

    • A powdery substance on the surface of, or felt within the package or envelope

    • Oily stains, discolorations, or odors on the package

    • Lopsided or uneven envelopes

    • Excessive packaging material such as masking tape or string

If an employee finds a suspicious package, they should set the package on a stable surface, leave the area, wash their hands thoroughly, and alert a supervisor or security person about the package. Threats may also come in the form of phone calls, e-mails, or letters stating that anthrax has been sent to a facility.

If a workplace determines it has a possible anthrax exposure, it is important that workers try not to panic. If there is no EAP in place, the workers should isolate the contaminated areas and turn off local fans or ventilation units. If possible, it may also help to shut down the facility’s HVAC system to prevent spreading the spores. Once the area has been secured, call 9-1-1, notify the National Response Center at (800) 424-8802, and contact the facility’s owner or manager.

The United States has taken steps to provide added security from terrorist attacks, but any workplace that receives a threat by phone call, e-mail, or letter should contact 9-1-1 immediately. The CDC and OSHA recommend that employers treat any potential threats seriously to protect workers and prevent the spread of this dangerous disease.

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