HR Basics, HR News & Trends

Bed Bugs in the Workplace: How to Handle a Growing, Creepy HR Issue

Bedbugs

There’s a bad joke waiting to be told about how bed bugs are making their way to the corner office, or how the “glass ceiling” poses no obstacle for them.

The reality, though, is that bed bugs in the workplace are a real issue that is anything but funny. Business owners, human resource directors, and facilities managers who ignore this growing problem risk lessening employee productivity, morale, and their company’s reputation. What they gain is an increased likelihood in lawsuits filed by workers, vendors, and/or customers.

The year 2010 may be named the Year of the Bed Bug. Since June, in New York City alone, bed bugs have been reported in retail stores (Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria’s Secret, Niketown), hospitals (Kings County Hospital), and major buildings (Time Warner Center, Elle Magazine, Sirius XM Radio, Lincoln Center). Bed bugs have been found in many other business settings that have not been publicly reported.

HR must be involved in the bed bug battle

Winning a battle against bed bugs requires extensive cooperation between the pest control firm and key departments of the company — especially human resources. Based on our experience at Bell Environmental Services, the operations and/or facilities management departments, while skilled in other maintenance issues, do not understand how bed bugs are different that other pest control issues and have little sense of how their decisions affect the rest of the company.

Productivity, potential loss of sales, employee morale, disruption, and panic are not issues they encounter. The facilities department’s goal is the extermination of various pests. HR executives have more at stake.

The first step is to establish with senior management the seriousness of the issue, and the ramifications. No decisions should be made without input or buy-in from 1. Senior Management; 2. HR; 3. Communications; and 4. Facilities Management.

Understanding the bed bug problem

The second step it to understand the nature of the problem.

  • Bed bugs are not native to a building. They’re brought in with employees, their bags, purses, luggage, or on furniture. It is no one’s fault that bed bugs were introduced into a building, but they must be eliminated before they quickly spread and affect large numbers of people.
  • When one bed bug is sighted, acknowledge that there are more. Typically an office or commercial location has had an infestation for a month before an employee might spot a bed bug.
  • Once in the office, bed bugs adjust their hours and feed on people when they are on site rather than their nocturnal schedule in a residence.
  • Typically, the bed bugs do not spread throughout an entire building, but do occupy the areas where people spend extensive periods of time while sedentary.
  • Employ trained dogs to determine if and where there are problems. Canines have 98 percent accuracy vs. humans’ 40 percent accuracy in finding hidden bugs in low-level infestations. These insects are notoriously hard to find because they can hide in tiny cracks and go up to a year without feeding. Schedule these inspections on a regular basis, and use them to investigate complaints.

Treatment issues

Third, understand the most important element for eliminating bed bugs is a more thorough treatment than conventional pest control. Bed bugs hide in any crack and crevice, so it is necessary to use a labor-intensive approach that treats the whole “haystack” in order to eliminate the “needles.” The three main treatment methods — chemicals/pesticides, steam heat, and carbon dioxide freezing — have different pros and cons and can affect the operations of the workplace and employee health.

Some pesticides can kill bed bugs on contact and others ideally provide some degree of residual protection. Bed bugs, however, have shown growing resistance and outright immunity to many chemicals. Moreover, pesticides cannot be applied in the electronics and furniture where these bugs hide because they would damage equipment or endanger human health. Other pesticides lead offices to shut down or leave unpleasant odors.

Steam heat also kills bugs on contact by exposing them to a very high temperature. Steam is problematic when computers or electronics are involved and it cannot be applied universally as it may ruin furniture.

The freezing method – a liquid carbon dioxide dispersed like a spray of snow-like dry ice — causes the least disruption. Freezing is effective and eco-friendly, and can be used on computers and fine furnishings without causing damage. While it does allow the most thorough treatments, it only kills bugs on contact. Freezing does not leave a residual.

Long-term vigilance is the best prevention tool

Bell Environmental Services recommends the use of freezing technology because the application of this solution is universal, the least disruptive, and gives the greatest chance of successful elimination. Heat and pesticide treatments can require the closure of the office or for employees to work from home.

In instances where businesses have “walk-in” customers, this means lost sales, and a very public “outing” that your firm has bed bugs. In office settings, the closure of an office invariably leads a lack of productivity and an increased risk that the bed bug infestation will be communicated to a wide group of people, and many times results in negative media coverage.

There is no guarantee that bed bugs, once eliminated, won’t be re-introduced to a business setting. Long term, vigilance is the best prevention tool against a large bed bug problem. Bed bugs – and their “eek” factor – have captured people’s imagination like no other pest.

Unless a company shows employees that the problem is being taken seriously, and steps are being taken by HR to educate employees how to help prevent further infestations, morale will plummet and recruiting and retention will become more difficult.

Jennifer Erdogan is the director of the bed bug division at Bell Environmental Services. Based in Parsippany, N.J., Bell Environmental is one of the leading bed bug extermination firms in the greater New York metro area. Contact Jennifer at jerdogan@bell-environmental.com .