International travel, immigration, changes in pest control management, and developed immunity to pesticide products on the market all contribute to the resurgence of bed bugs across the globe, and there is no silver bullet to squelch the problem.
Bed bugs are the perfect storm of pest control, said Dr. Michael Potter, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky and one of the world’s foremost authorities on bed bugs, during a lecture at the Bed Bug & Pest Control Conference presented by Lodging in Chicago Aug. 22-24. A bed bug is a “cryptic, bloodsucking parasite that bites you at night while you’re sleeping”— indoors, in your bed.
In the 1940s, bed bugs were part of what life threw at people, and they became accustomed to dealing with adversity, Potter said. An emphasis was placed on vigilance then, but he questions whether we are capable of that vigilance now, in a world where people’s attention is torn in multiple directions by cell phones, laptops, and more.
Today, people who get bit by bed bugs in places like hotels want to sue for compensation, making the problem tougher to deal with than ever before. Guest injury claims can include pain, suffering, scarring, trauma, anxiety, stress, insomnia, and humiliation.
This is not a new problem, Potter stressed: it’s history repeating itself. Bed bugs are common in homes, hospitals, schools, movie theaters, dressing rooms, and anywhere else people are present, especially hotels. Bed bugs have even been found in neonatal care units and funeral homes. “From birth to death, they’re following us,” Potter said.
Bed bugs are as flat as a fingernail and can get into the tiniest places. If a guest or employee reports an incident, it’s important to collect a specimen for confirmation because bed bugs can be confused for other insects. Tell tale signs of bed bugs include tiny white eggs in clusters, brown shed skins, and fecal matter.
Approximately 30 percent of people who get bit don’t react, have a delayed reaction, or attribute bites to something else. When not reported immediately, infestations can build.
Incidents are inevitable and all guests and employees are potential carriers. Potter said it’s important for hoteliers to involve employees and maintain openness when it comes to infestations. Hotels cannot rely only on pest control alone, he said. They need bed bug prevention plans that include frequent checks by housekeepers, routine headboard checks by engineering staff, and periodic comprehensive inspections by the hotel or contractors. It’s crucial to train all personnel, not just housekeepers.
Headboards—close to the head of sleeping guests—are the single most likely place to find infestations in the earliest stages. Seams and corners of mattresses, especially by the pillows, should also be inspected. Potter suggests use of a “bounty” system as an incentive for housekeepers to catch bed bugs in the early stages. “Just because you or they don’t see anything is no guarantee that they’re not there,” Potter stressed.
From box springs, mattresses, and bed frames, bed bugs can eventually spread to other areas like carpet edges, curtains, nightstands, sofas, walls, and ceilings if not treated.
Hotels should have a written bed bug policy and procedure, verifiable training of staff, ongoing inspection of all rooms, a reputable pest control contractor, infested rooms taken out of service, inspection of adjoining rooms, and civility toward the affected guest, Potter said.
As the public becomes more aware about bed bugs, it reduces panic and outrage to some degree, but Potter does not foresee a cure-all solution.
“This is one tough problem.”
In addition, bed bugs are becoming a major cause of litigation against hotel and hospitality companies. Christian E. Hardigree, a licensed attorney in Nevada and Georgia and faculty member and the department chair for the Hotel Management Department in the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, discussed the legalities and liabilities hoteliers should be aware of.
To protect themselves against lawsuits, hoteliers must demonstrate that they have taken precautions to avoid the perception of negligence, and establish that they were reasonable under the circumstances in their inspections for bed bugs, their response plan, pest treatment options, etc. If hoteliers cannot demonstrate that they have taken reasonable precautions to protect their guests, it is a negligence case. Hoteliers can be found negligent or grossly negligent in the case of improper behavior. When a hotel knows it is infested with bed bugs and doesn't respond, it can be liable for punitive cases. Hardigree said that if hoteliers intentionally put people in a room with bed bugs when they know that the individual is likely to be bitten, it's the same as battery or punching someone.
Most insurance policies will not cover a hotel for punitive damages and most insurance companies will not cover treatment for bed bugs, so it's important for hoteliers to look for exclusionary language in their policy and check with insurance carriers to be certain of their position. Insurance companies are now selling specific riders for bed bug coverage and business interruption coverage. For a higher premium, hoteliers can also opt for a choice of counsel provision so they can select their own attorney to defend them in a case of a lawsuit.
Look for more coverage of the Bed Bug & Pest Control Conference presented by Lodging on LodgingMagazine.com and in the pages of Lodging.