Bedbugs Create Unique Challenges for HR Professionals

By Pamela Babcock Sep 28, 2010
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Bedbugs are back with a vengeance. Once considered the domain of hotels and apartment buildings, they’re finding their way into clothing stores, office buildings, airline seats and more.

Retailers Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch recently shuttered two Manhattan locations because of a bedbug infestation. Other recent victims included the Brooklyn district attorney’s office and even the Empire State Building. And bedbugs aren’t just limited to the New York City area.

“It’s everywhere,” said Ron Harrison, Ph.D., Orkin’s director of technical services in Atlanta. “Bedbugs have been found in public libraries, executive board rooms, movie theaters and even on major airlines.”

The blood-sucking pests pose unique challenges for companies, experts said. In addition to addressing the immediate need to eradicate such pests, there are legal and insurance ramifications, as well as employee relations issues, particularly given the stigma that goes with an infestation.

Top Cities for Bedbugs

Bedbugs tend to hitch rides on people from one location to the next. Offices and stores are prime targets given the number of people who pass through them each day.

“Bedbugs are hitchhikers, and they need humans for their very survival,” said Missy Henriksen, a spokeswoman for the National Pest Management Association in Fairfax, Va. “So if you’ve got a home that has an infestation, the bugs are going to latch onto the briefcase, the gym bag, the purses and the pant cuffs.”

The most bedbug-infested city is New York, followed by Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati and Chicago, according to an August 2010 Terminix survey.

“Over the last two years, our bedbug business has more than doubled for residential customers and tripled among commercial customers,” said Valerie Sherman, vice president of communications at Terminix in Memphis, Tenn.

Awareness Might Not Be There

Bedbugs in business might be a growing trend, but the commercial real estate industry might not be aware of the problem. An August 2010 survey by Orkin found that most property managers, building owners and other commercial real estate professionals were unaware of the growing threat.

More than 90 percent of respondents said they had not experienced or were not aware of a commercial real estate bedbug problem, and 75 percent said bedbugs pose “little to no threat” or a “minor threat” to the commercial real estate industry.

Bedbugs typically feed at night, so those who work during the day might not be bitten. However, Harrison said studies have shown that the majority of people who are bitten aren’t even aware that they were.

Harrison is conducting a study of bedbugs titled “Human Dermatological Response to First Time Bed Bug, Cimex lectularius, Bites.” Of 1,400 people that allowed bedbugs to “feed” on them, only 10 percent who “saw it feeding said they could feel it,” Harrison said. In that same study, only 5 percent reported any reaction, such as itching, swelling or reddening of the skin.

Preventing Bedbugs in Offices

Want to prevent bedbugs in your offices or business? Henriksen recommends the following:

  • Vacuum and clean all areas, including offices, hallways, lobbies, kitchens, storefronts and public bathrooms, daily.
  • Inspect your business regularly for signs of infestations. Pay close attention to furniture seams and upholstery, looking for telltale brownish or reddish spots. Adult bedbugs are typically a quarter of an inch long and look like an apple seed.
  • Be aware that bedbugs have been known to inhabit electrical sockets, surge protectors and picture frames.
  • Eliminate clutter as much as possible, especially in storage areas, which are excellent hiding spots.
  • When receiving shipments and unpacking new inventory, inspect all items and packaging carefully before bringing them into your business.

Other Steps to Take

A variety of methods are used to combat bedbugs, including insecticides and special machines that use cold, heat, steam and vacuums. A growing number of companies use dogs trained to sniff out the pests as well as a few scientific approaches, such as swabbing for the bedbugs’ DNA to help locate the pests.

“The only way to deal with it is with a trained professional—it’s not a do-it-yourself job,” Henriksen said.

Employers should encourage employees to report suspicions of bedbug activity immediately and to contact a pest professional to investigate each claim, experts say. Any infestation should be treated and follow-up inspections should be performed, said Henriksen.

What One Provider Recommends

Dan Chaney, SPHR, director of HR advisory services at Employers Resource Association, a non-profit serving 1,400 small and medium-size businesses in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, said its hotline receives bedbug questions “on a regular basis.”

He said the first step should be to determine “what employee or group is responsible,” adding that is not usually too difficult since they often report that they have a problem at home.

Immediate areas around the workspace and other areas where the employee congregates should be treated by an exterminator, but to prevent a reinfestation by the same person, Chaney typically advises member companies to send the “carrier” home with the requirement that the employee have his home treated and then re-inspected by the pest control firm several weeks later. “If that report is clean, we let them return to work,” Chaney noted.

Paying the employee who is asked to stay home “is of course up to the employer,” Chaney said, but, he added, “Our member companies usually elect not to pay them.”

Legal and Insurance Issues

Do employers have a legal requirement to keep workplaces free of bedbugs? Should employees who have bedbugs at home be required to stay out of the workplace? Those and other issues were addressed recently in a Q&A by Jackson Lewis, a labor and employment law firm.

Attorney Robert Friedman, head of the insurance coverage practice group at the law firm Gunster in West Palm Beach, Fla., said bedbugs might give rise to liability claims.

From a property insurance standpoint, whether residential or commercial, Friedman said, there would not be coverage because there is no triggering event, such as a fire or hurricane. Likewise, business interruption would not be covered if, for example, a retail store like Nike had to shut down for a week while it tried to get rid of the bugs.

But Friedman said there could be insurance coverage for liability claims if a shopper at the store or an employee sued for bodily injury caused by the bites, or for damage caused by the spread of the bedbugs to their home. He added that retail stores are less likely to see claims than a hotel or resort where guests spend a significant amount of time.

Friedman added that the largest benefit of insurance coverage likely is to pay for the cost to defend businesses that have been sued and do not want to admit that they have a problem. He added that for HR, this all points out the need to ensure that an organization has a “solid risk management plan to deal with a bedbug infestation.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.​

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