Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite...at Work?
You are proud of the clean facilities you provide to your employees. They are engaged in picking up after themselves, even in the employee cafeteria; microwaves are spotless, tables are wiped up, and waste is removed daily to avoid pesky pests.
Then, Teri the Whiner, who works overnight, complains about little red welts and seeing tiny bugs on her co-worker’s desk. Walter the Wimp ignores her until he sees little tiny bugs on his chair and desktop. In his usual manner, two weeks later, he finally decides to act, only to learn from the facilities manager that there is a bed bug infestation at your normally pristine workplace now. So now what?
Teri the Whiner refuses to return to work until the problem is remedied. She is experiencing itchy skin and a few welts are inflamed, plus she is having trouble sleeping because knowing that there are more bugs at work and lurking in her house is causing her undue stress. She reaches her limit (which we all know is an extremely small window), and she files a workers compensation claim, heading over to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) office to put in for a "failure to provide a safe workplace," which is an employers’ general duty.
Employees need to be vigilant, just as an employer does. Bed hugs are hitchhikers permeating retail businesses, planes, restaurants, schools, hospitals, and then possibly your home. The creatures feed on blood. There are things to be on the look out for to assist you and a few important things to know:
- Bed bugs have not been associated with carrying disease.
- Some people do experience discomfort from the bite, resulting in itching or a welt, and possibly an infection may occur.
- Most people do not experience any symptoms from a bite, and the act of the bite does not generally cause pain.
- Some people experience stress from knowing the varmints are uninvited co-habitants.
Teri the Whiner could have taken a few precautionary steps to help avert this situation since, unbeknownst to her, she was ground zero for the infestation. She purchased some new sweaters from a well know retailer that were the carriers of the bugs. By examining the clothes before purchasing, she may have observed them, since mature adults are about the size of an apple seed or smaller.
When trying on clothing examine crevices where a bug might want to hide, waiting for its ride: cushions (so at work, check your chairs and cubicle walls) are potential homes for them, and if you hang clothing when trying them on, it may help. Upon arriving at home check again, and wash your clothes and use heat to dry before wearing them. The bugs can reside anywhere and don’t have much to do with cleanliness (so the dirty microwave and tabletop in the cafeteria aren’t their homestead—it’s the carpet, clothing of co-workers, visitors bags and purses, travelers briefcases, and customers).
If you notice a problem and Walter the Wimp ignores you, tell someone else. You have some responsibilities to bring it to the attention of others. Admittedly, your supervisor should be your first source of help, but if not, go to Human Resources or a trusted manager or supervisor. You are protected if you file a formal complaint with a regulatory agency and there is jurisdiction, but who wants to start there? Take some ownership, after all, it's you who will be itching and not sleeping at night!
Wake up and educate Walter the Wimp that he needs to be a supervisor—with the money and power comes responsibility to his employees and you as the employer—when issues are brought to his attention he needs to act. The laws and regulations don’t require, in most instances, a bug free workplace. As an employer, you do have general obligations from OSHA, and this could be embraced under its authority to provide an environment free from recognized hazards. Also, if you have an infestation, the chemical treatments used to cause the demise of the beasties might trigger OSHA protections.
The thing about bed bugs is, it’s somewhat of a new arena for employers. The hotel and health care industries have a high level of expectations, but the buggies are moving to more offices, retail spaces, and other industries where they haven’t commonly been perceived as a problem. There are a lot of what-ifs and maybes.
As an employer, I would mitigate my risk through education, awareness, and doing inspections. You have good will to worry about. You can’t say you care about issues and always be reactive—be proactive (an over-used but important term). Many employers figure that if we don’t say anything then we can avoid worker compensation claims and expenses associated the bugs. Keep in mind, Mr. Employer, you are always a target—if you don’t get workers compensation you could get an OSHA inspection or a negligence claim. Employees might be eligible for Family and Medical Leave. It’s always something.
As an employer, be armed with knowledge. There are articles with the extension office, Center for Disease Control, and pest control companies to learn from. As they say, “DO IT!” When there is a suspected problem, thoroughly investigate it, and address the problem using experts. This goes beyond calling the “bug busters”—that doesn't address the root cause. Where did those buggies come in? Do you home work, and you could prevent some negative press, poor employee relations, interrupted work (from absences), and a major extermination. Some retailers have had to close their doors—not being open means sales aren’t being made and employees aren’t earning a living.
So, who would have thought we would be talking about bed bugs—the often used goodnight expression “don’t let the bed bugs bite” takes on a new perspective in Your Workplace.