​Mail bombs and suspect packages: what to do

​Mail bombs and suspect packages: what to do

By Gaby Grammeno on 20 March 2018 How do we prepare for the possibility of a bomb or hazardous materials being received in the mail?

This question was recently sent to our Ask an Expert service.

Q Our company sometimes has to deal with controversial issues and at times we have received backlash from some individuals, including threats sent in the mail. We’ve seen the recent reports about mail package explosions in Texas and we’re worried about the possibility an explosive package, or one contaminated with some hazardous substance, may come into our mail room.

What are our health and safety obligations?

A Murder by mail bomb may sound like a plot for a TV crime show but, unfortunately, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility, even in Australia. 

As long ago as 1984, the wife of a family court judge was killed when she opened the front door of her home, triggering an improvised explosive device that had been left on the doorstep. In 1994, a letter bomb explosion at the National Crime Authority (NCA) in Adelaide killed a detective sergeant and seriously injured a lawyer employed by the NCA. 

Internationally, letter bombs have been responsible for numerous deaths and injuries over the years, with the recent mail package explosions in Texas killing a teenager and seriously injuring two women.

Health and safety obligations 

An organisation's duty of care means it needs to be aware of such possibilities. The overriding obligation is to be prepared and to maintain a vigilant stance and a readiness to respond, to the extent that is reasonably practicable.

Advice on mail bomb countermeasures has been developed by the Australian Federal Police (AFP). In a handbook that is freely available online, it sets out procedures and recommendations derived from the experiences of national and international police, and security and law enforcement agencies. The information aims to provide managers with clear guidance on how to develop in-house policy and strategies to counter bomb threats, including the threat of mail bombs.

The publication advises that mail bombs pose a continuing and serious threat to public safety – a change in political activity, a new cause or a new wave of social unrest is all that is needed to inspire fresh waves of mail bomb activity.  

Mail bombs and suspect packages

Most letter bombs fall into one of three categories – they are explosive, incendiary or noxious. The latter aim to cause injury, death or a nuisance effect using toxic substances such as poisons. They are generally designed to be robust enough to remain inactive while in the postal system but to function when opened, or when an article is removed from an envelope or package. Typically, they are about the size of a normal business envelope, though in Australia they have varied from the size of a small envelope to a package of a sufficient size to contain enough explosives to destroy a small car. 

The AFP information outlines the recommended security screening system, which places the initial responsibility with the recipient or mail registry. Detection can be visual, using certain visual recognition points, or metal detective equipment may be used. The most common recognition points in Australia include: excessive weight or securing material; an unknown source; a lopsided or uneven envelope; protruding wires or excessive postage.

Any suspect packages or letters should be placed in a safe isolation area such as an empty room while supervisors and police are contacted. Consideration should be given to evacuating the area – the police may be able to assist with this decision.

Specialist police or military bomb technicians should then carry out further investigation of any suspicious mail.

Evacuation procedures

Regardless of any threat of mail bombs, every organisation should have an emergency plan in place, including regularly practised evacuation drills. Emergency exits should be kept unlocked from the inside and clear of obstructions.

More guidance on the legal requirements for emergency plans and evacuation procedures for workplaces can be found on our site. For detailed advice on screening for mail bombs and handling suspect mail, consult the AFP publication Bombs – Defusing the threat.

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