What You Can’t See, CAN HURT YOU.
Sun, 10/31/2010 - 8:00pm
“You got rats on the west side, bed bugs uptown.
What a mess. This town’s in tatters.”
Mick Jagger sang it. These days New Yorkers are living it. Bed bugs are all over the Big Apple, and they’re making a creepy crawly comeback nationwide.
By now you must have heard about the “bed bug epidemic,” this year’s answer to last year’s swine flu. It’s got people almost as paranoid on a personal level, but businesses have yet to realize – and plan for – the magnitude of potential disruptions, experts say.
Could this little bug bring down your business? Maybe. Although a relatively new threat, the pesky critters are the source of business closures, lawsuits, itchy scratchy PR, and expensive remediation. And the problem is only going to get worse, says Jeff White, a research entomologist with Bed Bug Central.
Bed bugs are White’s business and lately, business is booming. He has appeared on NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams, NBC’s Today’s Show, ABC’s World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer, CNBC’s Street Signs, Dateline, and The View, among many others. He also hosts Bed Bug Central TV, an online weekly video podcast that’s all about bed bugs.
Play with Fire
White says businesses ignore bed bugs at their own peril. “Bed bugs in office buildings are a very legitimate problem right now. In the last year or so, we’ve had at least 20 different office buildings right here in the New Jersey/New York/Philadelphia metro area contact us about bed bugs. And those are just the ones that have contacted us. God knows how many have actually had an issue.”
God may know, but no one else does. Bed bug troubles are under-reported and businesses tend to keep quiet about them because of the ick factor. In fact, Continuity Insights contacted a major accounting firm about a reported bed bug incident, and the very professional, efficient, and honest PR person practically pleaded with us not to include mention of the firm’s name (and its lone bug) in this article. We’ll respect that request, since the identity of that organization doesn’t really matter. Bed bugs are everywhere.
Movie theaters, law firms, hotels, colleges, cruise ships, retail stores: all have been hit by the midnight ramblers. But why and how are bed bugs invading businesses?
“Typically what happens is that somebody has a bed bug infestation at home and they bring a bug in on a personal belonging – a laptop bag or backpack or even sometimes their pant leg or shirt,” White explains. “What happens is that one bug walks off of what they brought in and someone spots it. The big question in terms of offices and commercial buildings is: Is it just one bug, or is there an actual reproducing infestation?”
The good news is that in his career, White has only seen two office building infestations, and he believes true reproducing populations are still quite rare at work. “Many times, I think it is just an isolated bug. That’s what our experience has been. Someone brings a bug into the office, and it doesn’t have the ability to reproduce. It doesn’t have food. You don’t typically find reproducing problems, eggs, and young bed bugs in offices. I’ve only ever encountered that twice.”
An office is “a very different setting for a bed bug,” White says. “Bed bugs are used to a bed or someplace where people are sleeping, and they prefer when people are still so they can feed. When people are moving around constantly that presents a difficult situation for bugs. That’s not to say that they can’t do it, because obviously sometimes people will sit at their desks for an extended period of time and I have seen blood-fed bed bugs in an office setting. So they can do it. It’s just not an ideal situation for them. And in our experience most of the bugs we find in an office setting are not freshly fed.”
White cautions “that doesn’t mean that attention doesn’t need to be paid to this. If bugs keep getting brought in, it’s going to be just a matter of time before they start figuring out how to feed and you have a reproducing problem.” But for now, he says, bed bugs in businesses are “confused.”
19th Nervous Breakdown
And businesses are confused about bed bugs too. Actually, they are “freaking out” and “over-reacting,” says White.
“I think most retail stores are drastically over-reacting at this point. They are doing way too much. To empty an entire retail store because you found a bug or two on an article of clothing is a complete overreaction.”
What should be done? “The ideal scenario is: I would go in and try to evaluate the situation immediately and try to figure out what the extent of the problem is. If the bugs are isolated to one area, there’s no reason to empty an entire store out. You would address that area where the bug was found and empty out the clothes in that area and maybe you would have to shut corner of the store down to address the concern.”
White says the “price tag” associated with such closures is “steep.” For treatment alone, “I’m talking about tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. And to do that every single time a bed bug is found is not a protocol that is going to be able to be sustained” – in any business setting. “As the population of bed bugs in this country grows, this could become more common. And for some retail store to expect to be able to spend $250,000 every time a bed bug is spotted is completely unrealistic.”
Add in the cost of lost business, potential lawsuits, and negative PR, and “unrealistic” quickly becomes preposterous. “I can’t imagine that businesses can sustain that kind of economic loss,” White says.
White recommends “weighing the liability, the legal situation, the extent of the problem, and the effectiveness of what is being done to find some middle ground.”
For treatment, he suggest holding off on fumigation – which would shut down a facility for two to three days – in favor of a “more controlled approach” involving visual or canine inspection. “Maybe you need to shut down for two to three hours. That’s a little more reasonable.”
“I have not seen an office do it soup-to-nuts the way I would really like to see it done,” he says. “Sending people home or telling them to work from home is not a reasonable approach to bed bugs in an office,” and neither is the hush-hush, after-dark, surreptitious response that many businesses choose to employ.
“The first thing I would like to see done is for employees to be informed. Communicate to employees that there’s a national bed bug epidemic going on and that offices are not immune to this situation. Ask them to please pay attention to what is going on in their homes. Inform them of the signs and symptoms, and tell them what to do if they think they have a problem. If you provide the employee base with information, you are reducing the chance that these bugs are brought in. That’s the key! That’s it! But nobody does it. And as long as that is the case, bugs will just continually be brought in.”
“I tell people that you can touch a building with a magic wand today and get every bug in it, but if a bug is brought in the next day, you’re right back where you started. The only way to truly control this is and stop it and slow it down is education. Unless you do that, you’re just putting out fires. And really, I’m getting sick of hearing myself say it.”
White says we should be doing for bed bugs what we did for H1N1 – involving legal, HR, facilities and top management to formulate a plan for response as well as outreach. “That’s the perfect analogy. In that case, people know that they have to wash their hands frequently and cover their mouths when they sneeze. Now we need to tell them how not to bring beg bugs into work and how not to take them home.” CI