Mystery bug bites in the workplace

by nobugsonme on January 27, 2010 · 1 comment

in bed bug bites, bed bugs in the workplace

Dr. Mike Merchant has a new post on Insects in the City today about the rise in complaints of perceived insect bites in offices around this time of year.

Merchant suggests a number of possible explanations for these mystery bites — fleas, rodent mites, a theory that dry air and static electricity can cause small particles to cause “prickling sensations” (we’ve heard people speculate about this in the forums), other causes such as allergies, and the “contagion” of the idea of being bitten in the office — any of which may lead to employees perceiving (correctly or not) that they’re being bitten by a pest.

All of these causes are possible, as are bed bugs, which have been making themselves known in the workplace as of late.

Although Merchant appears to be talking about people who “feel” a bite at work (not just people who discover “bites” on their skin), and so at first glance it may seem bed bugs are ruled out (since almost no one seems to feel them when they bite), we do hear from some people whose allergic reactions to known bed bug bites appear to involve feelings of crawling and prickling as if one is being bitten when no pest is presently biting.

I agree with Merchant that pest management professionals (PMPs) need to carefully investigate whether a pest is behind these types of complaints.

I have two concerns when it comes to “mystery bites” in the workplace.

First, I worry that in some cases, PMPs may give up too easily. Glue traps can work, but may not catch a small problem, at least not at once.

I can’t speak for mites or fleas, but if an office had a small and new infestation of bed bugs, it is possible to receive bites and not easily find bugs or evidence (even with sticky traps).  If bites and complaints increased over time, an active monitor might be a good idea for ruling bed bugs out.  Plug-in flea traps may similarly help rule out fleas.

In addition, I was troubled by this statement in Merchant’s post:

As a [pest management] professional you need to communicate honestly and fully with your building manager. If you opt to “shoot blanks”, say with water or an air freshener, the manager should be fully informed and agree with the tactic.

It would be entirely unethical for a PMP to “shoot blanks” and not tell the building manager.

However, even if the PMP is in cahoots with the manager, I think this is not a good (or ethical) tactic.  We have heard plenty of stories of “no evidence of bed bugs” where evidence was later found.

And having heard many hundreds (if not thousands) of stories of people who use PMPs (at work or at home), I have learned that if someone is getting treated for bed bugs, and the treatment does not seem to be working, many people will simply give up.

They may think their boss (or landlord, or they themselves) hired an incompetent company, they may feel they will be treated unfairly if they press the issue and insist the problem has not gone away. People sometimes resort to self-treatment (which is not a good idea at home, and definitely not at work); still others decide the problem can’t be successfully treated.

Tricking employees into thinking the office was treated for a pest may backfire: it will probably stop employees complaining for a while, but it does not help resolve the problem if indeed there is a problem which just hasn’t been identified correctly yet — whether that problem is an allergy, an early case of bed bugs, or a serious static problem.


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