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Employers Waking Up to Bedbug Problems

October 26, 2010
Related Topics: Health and Wellness, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
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Bedbugs don’t need beds to bite—any old cubicle might do.

Amid growing concerns about commercial bedbug infestations—particularly in New York, where the bloodsuckers have been reported in retail stores, movie theaters and office buildings—employers need to know what to look for and how to react when potential problems arise, experts say.

In addition, it’s not just ridding themselves of bedbugs that can be costly and troublesome for employers; the presence of bedbugs in a workplace also could potentially generate workers’ compensation issues, legal experts say.

This month, reports surfaced that bedbugs had invaded the main offices of The Wall Street Journal and of its parent company, News Corp., in New York.

According to a spokesman with Dow Jones & Co. Inc., a subsidiary of News Corp. that publishes the Journal, a staffer at Barron’s, a weekly financial newspaper, informed Dow Jones that he had bedbugs in his apartment.

As a precaution, Dow Jones “acted proactively and in an abundance of caution to forestall any issue” relating to bedbugs and promptly tested the area around the employee's desk and other areas of the newsroom. Staff members also were alerted to the problem.

Bedbug-sniffing dogs were brought in and, although no bugs reportedly were found, a steam cleaning of the area was done as a precaution.

Once thought to only be a home or hospitality industry issue, bedbugs are increasingly likely to turn up in an office space because of their increasing presence in places like retail stores and movie theaters along with their ability to “hitchhike” in bags, purses, suitcases and clothing.

“It’s a common misconception that bedbugs only affect places where people sleep—hotels, apartments, homes—but bedbugs are migrating into offices and other commercial spaces,” Ron Harrison, director of technical services with Atlanta-based pest control company Orkin, said in a written statement. “Tenants can easily and unknowingly transport bedbugs from their home or travels to their workplace, where the bugs can infest practically any soft surface like chairs, rugs, sofas and even cubicle dividers.”

While the hospitality industry has become increasingly vigilant in prevention efforts, including stepping up education of staff on how to recognize signs of bedbugs, corporate travelers need to be aware of the risk and how to minimize it.

The resurgence of bedbugs in the United States started about eight years ago, said Michael Batenburg, president of New York-based fumigation consultants Bed Bugs and Beyond Consulting and Treatment Specialists, which acts as a liaison between the infested customer and pest control services. In some areas, bedbug populations are increasing by 500 percent to 1,000 percent on a yearly basis, depending on geographic location, he said.

Orkin said in a written statement that commercial offices are becoming increasingly susceptible to bedbugs, noting that from 2008 to 2009 the company’s bedbug service in office properties more than doubled.

Experts stress the need for employers—and their workers—to understand the nature of the problem.

“Education is the key to combat this bug,” Batenburg said. “Businesses need to be proactive in educating employees about bedbugs so they don’t accidentally bring an infestation into the workplace.”

Informing employees about what bedbugs are, how to detect them, how they behave and how they can travel is key, risk management and pest control experts said. That’s mostly because “there are so many misnomers out there” about the bugs, including the idea that they are a result of unclean conditions, Batenburg said.

“Knowledge is power,” said Lisa Hartman, Needham, Massachusetts-based director of claims and loss control for Albert Risk Management Consultants. “If you get educated, you will be more careful in what you’re doing and what you should be looking for.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a guide to bedbugs at cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/Topics/bedbugs.htm.

In addition to bites, telltale signs of infestation include molted exoskeletons, rust-colored stains on fabrics and the presence of a “sweet, musty odor,” according to the CDC.

Experts say employers also should identity areas where bedbugs could hide, including drapery, cluttered areas and baseboards. Other recommendations include conducting regular pest control checks and removing clutter in office spaces. And when a problem is identified, employees should be informed, experts note.

Neal Nakashima, corporate director of risk management and insurance for Outrigger Enterprises Inc. in Honolulu, said there really isn’t a set practice on dealing with employees who report that they have bedbugs in their homes.

“We’d have to handle it on a case-by-case basis, because that’s a little tougher to deal with than if we were to find them in a hotel,” he said.

If a problem is identified in the workplace, remediation can be costly. And because those costs likely will be uninsured, early detection is important.

Bedbug elimination costs can range from $2,000 to $5,000 without any discounting being offered for volume, said Batenburg of Bedbugs & Beyond.

K-9 services that specialize in sniffing out bedbugs can range from $100 to $400 per hour depending on the size of the area they are canvassing, while fumigation costs can start at $500 to $1,500, he said, adding that traditional pest control services have an average cost range of $200 to $500.

But despite the high costs, risk managers may face difficulties in recouping expenses with insurance, as policies generally have exclusions for vermin.

Steam cleaning has proven to be an effective way to kill bedbugs, and fumigating with sulfuryl fluoride, Batenburg said, is generally effective in one treatment. Fumigation and cleanings can take between 24 and 48 hours.

But employer responsibility regarding bedbug prevention remains “an undeveloped area,” said Richard Greenberg, a New York-based partner with Jackson Lewis LLP’s labor practice.

“You have to be reasonable in remediation and post incident actions, because bedbugs can give a company negative press, which is something employers are going to want to avoid with this issue because it’s (already) generating a lot of media coverage.”

Filed by Jeff Casale of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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