Don't Let Bed Bugs Take a Bite Out of Your Business Reputation

Barely the size of an apple seed, the tiny bed bug is creating major headaches for business owners. A nuisance pest that does not transmit disease, the unsavory fact that bed bugs feed on human blood engenders a level of revulsion well out of proportion to their miniscule size. When this parasitic insect infests a retail store or commercial business office, the public stigma associated with bed bugs can cause employees to panic, send customers fleeing, damage the firm's business reputation and tarnish its corporate brand. That's a heavy price to pay for a problem over which business owners have no control.

Unlike other unsavory pests, a bed bug infestation is not an indication of poor sanitation or lax maintenance. Bed bugs ride into a retail shop or office building hidden on the clothing and in the possessions of customers and employees. "Bedbugs are hitchhikers; they travel with people and with items that travel with people," National Pest Management Association (NPMA) spokeswoman Missy Henriksen told USA Today in an August 2010 interview. What frustrates business owners is that they are being held accountable and burdened with the cost of getting rid of a problem they did not create.

Virtually unheard of in the U.S. a decade ago, bed bug infestations have tripled in the U.S. since 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A major headache for hoteliers since they started returning to the U.S. in the luggage of foreign travelers, bed bugs gradually spread to travelers' homes and in the past year have been increasingly discovered in commercial buildings. In a 2010 survey conducted by the NPMA and University of Kentucky, 20% of U.S. pest control firms reported treating bed bug infestations in commercial buildings, compared to less than 1% in 2007.

As the nation's busiest international gateway, New York City has suffered early in the national bed bug invasion and has proven to be an indicator of the growing pattern of bed bug infiltration for other cities. In recent months, bed bug infestations have moved beyond hotels and residential buildings and been increasingly reported in NYC retail stores, popular entertainment venues and commercial office buildings. Bed bugs have also hit hotels and motels nationwide, government offices in Washington D.C., Federal offices in Philadelphia and Kentucky, and most recently a well-known high-rise business tower in Chicago.

Adept hitchhikers, bed bugs are easily transported between home and work in backpacks, shopping bags, briefcases, purses, gym bags, laptop computer cases and the suitcases of frequent travelers. Customers, employees, vendors, cleaning staff, and maintenance contractors -- anyone can bring bed bugs into a place of business. Bed bugs have been found in office furniture and supplies transported in an infested delivery truck. When bed bugs invade, file cabinets, wooden desks, upholstered chairs, cubicle walls, carpeting, employee lockers, padded benches in changing rooms and cluttered bookshelves provide attractive harborage. "They (bed bugs) tend to prefer fabrics and wood, but they can be drawn to warmth and end up almost anywhere," warned national bed bug expert Michael Potter, a University of Kentucky entomologist, in an August 2010 article posted on Forbes.com.

Citing the "alarming resurgence" of bed bug populations in the U.S., the EPA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued a joint statement calling bed bugs a serious public health threat and stating, "Bed bugs cause a variety of negative physical health, mental health and economic consequences." While nearly half of bed bug victims do not react to their bites, bed bug bites can cause mild to severe allergic reactions and, in rare cases, life-threatening anaphylactic shock. But it is the mental anguish that many bed bug victims experience that most concerns public health officials. Anxiety, insomnia, depression, stress and paranoia are common. "Probably one of the most under-reported issues is the mental anguish that comes with having bedbugs," Henriksen told USA Today.

No business is immune from bed bugs. Some of Manhattan's elite hotels have been sued in high profile lawsuits from guests claiming to have been bitten by bed bugs. While hotels and apartment buildings still garner the bulk of bed bug lawsuits, recent suits have also targeted dry cleaners, laundries, furniture stores, moving companies, universities and cruise lines. Most businesses prefer to settle bed bug claims out of court to avoid negative publicity and potentially high jury awards. Settlement amounts are generally much less than the jury-awarded sums that capture national headlines. Lawyers note that many bed bug victims expect to be compensated for mental anguish above reimbursement for medical treatment and replacement of infested belongings. "If I'm trying to settle a case, I might be offering $8,000, $10,000, and the person wants millions. They feel violated," Christian Hardigree, a lawyer and professor of hospitality law at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, told Bloomberg Businessweek in a 2007 article.

Bed bug lawsuits started attracting attention in 2003 when a Chicago jury awarded two bed bug victims $382,000 in punitive and compensatory damages for bites suffered at a budget chain motel. The generous verdict unleashed an avalanche of bed bug lawsuits. In 2004, a well known hotelier settled a bed bug suit brought against its posh hotel in New York City for a reported $150,000. In 2007, a Chicago couple filed a $20 million lawsuit against a Catskills resort after the woman had to be hospitalized for a severe allergic reaction to bed bug bites. In 2008 a news channel employee sued the owner and manager of the building that houses the studio where he works for bed bug bites sustained at work. In 2008, a New Jersey couple claiming they had been sold bed bug-infested furniture by a top department store was awarded $49,000. Last March, elderly and disabled residents of two Des Moines apartment buildings filed a class-action suit against building owners and managers over inadequate bed bug control.

While lawsuits damage a business' bottom line, negative publicity can deliver the knock-out punch. Consumer reports of bed bug activity on BedBugRegistry.com, the new bed bug-tracking iPhone app or popular bed bug blogs can scare off potential customers and erode brand value. Unfortunately for business owners, self-reported sites make no effort to verify consumer reports of bed bug activity nor do they update reports when bed bug problems are corrected.

There is no magic bullet that will make bed bugs disappear. "The main defense against bed bugs is education and awareness because everybody has a role to play in managing bed bugs, and it's much easier to manage if you catch it early," Edwin Rajotte, professor of entomology and IPM coordinator at Penn State University, told Forbes.com in a recent article on the most bed bug-infested cities. Privacy issues prevent questioning employees, visitors and suppliers about personal exposure to bed bugs or performing visual inspections of clothing and belongings, but there are effective, proactive measures business owners can take to reduce the risk of bed bug infestation.

Prevention. Scheduling regular facility inspections by a licensed pest control company with demonstrated bed bug expertise ensures early detection of bed bug activity. Early detection can contain bed bug activity to a small area, minimizing disruption to your business and extermination expense. Pest control professionals can also recommend Integrated Pest Management (IPM) procedures that can help keep your business bed bug free. To prevent bed bug transportation between home and work, some companies now provide tight-sealing plastic containers for storage of personal belongings while employees are at work.

Education. Maintaining a bed bug free work environment is a communal effort that requires employee cooperation. Employees should be taught how to identify bed bugs and signs of infestation, where to look for bed bugs, preventative steps they can take to avoid bringing bed bugs to work or taking them home, and what to do if they see or suspect bed bug activity. Licensed pest control professionals may be able to assist with employee training.

Action Plan. A bed bug action plan that clearly spells out the responsibilities of employees and employer should be implemented and communicated to managers and employees. The importance of early detection should be emphasized.

Communication. Employees should be encouraged to report bed bug activity at work or home and be assured that doing so will incur no penalty or jeopardize their employment. Employers should inform employees immediately of any bed bug activity and tell employees what steps are being taken to control the infestation.

Treatment. Bed bug-treatment protocols should be developed and in place to ensure prompt response and treatment by a licensed pest control professional if bed bug activity is detected.

Staff Training by Professionals. ChemTec Pest Control provides comprehensive training for commercial clients in how to prevent and monitor for bed bugs. Many other pest control firms nationwide are following suit; understanding that prevention and careful monitoring will allow for early intervention and treatment mitigating damage to a business'

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