For some it’s a harmless bed time farewell to children - “don’t let the bedbugs bite”…in the hospitality world it can be a brand damaging crisis.
Bedbugs are becoming more prevalent in North America and a hot topic for media coverage. While social media can be a useful tool to raise the profile of a brand or establishment, as anyone in the hospitality industry knows, negative coverage quickly translates into lost dollars. Unfortunately, news of an infestation can spread quickly and employers want to ensure an infestation is first and foremost prevented and, secondly, dealt with in a quick and quiet manner.
Although bedbugs can be found anywhere people are present, they are most commonly located in sleeping areas. As such, workers that handle bedding, clothing, or furniture where bedbugs could be hiding have a heightened risk of exposure. In particular, employees who work in the hospitality industry (whether it’s luxury hotels, economy lodging, small inns or multi-unit dwellings) are vulnerable.
Employers then ask what obligations do we have if our place of employment becomes infested? Do we need to post notices? Pay for employees to have their homes fumigated? Essentially, how can we eradicate the problem, while complying with our legal obligations and containing the damage to our brand?
In Ontario, an employer’s duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (the “OHSA”) include taking every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect the health and safety of a worker. Workers have a corresponding right to refuse to do work that he or she believes may endanger his or her physical safety, commonly referred to as a “work refusal”.
So does this mean that a worker has the right to refuse to attend at work if there is a bedbug infestation? That is, does the presence of bedbugs mean that a worker is “endangered”?
We think in most cases the answer is “no”.
Bedbugs are really just a nuisance to people as opposed to an actual threat to someone’s health. Reactions to their bites vary from person to person. Their bites can cause allergic reactions in some people similar to a mosquito bite and frequent scratching may lead to infection.
Most importantly, bedbugs are not known to transmit disease from one person to another. As it is unlikely that an employee exposed to bedbugs would be in any real danger, the question then becomes, what do I do if an employee refuses to work because of a bedbug infestation?
Despite the fact that the presence of bedbugs would likely not endanger an employee, if an employee refuses to work on the basis there are bedbugs in a room, an employer is expected to follow the normal work refusal process under the OHSA. The more work an employer does on the front-end of a bedbug infestation, the better position it will be in to respond swiftly to any work refusals.
The best strategy for employers is to develop a policy and procedure for the identification, management and prevention of bedbugs. Consider, for instance, a policy which requires workers to:
Hang personal items to keep them off of the floor.
Minimize the items they take into a potentially infested environment - take only what you need.
Protect all belongings they take into an infested environment by putting them into sealable plastic containers or bags and placing them in the middle of the room.
Wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as disposable gloves, shoe covers and coveralls when in a potentially infested environment.
Change into work clothes and shoes when arriving at work and remove them before leaving (when there is a risk of infestation).
Inspect shoe treads, clothing, cuffs, pockets collar and belongings after leaving work for small black (fecal matter) or dark red (blood) stains, along with both live and dead bedbugs.
Shake out coats and loose clothing before entering the workplace or getting into a car or using public transit.
Upon returning home from work promptly wash any clothes at the hottest recommended setting. Tumble dry clothes on high heat for 30 minutes. Clothes that require dry cleaning should be kept in a sealed plastic bag until dry cleaning.
Promptly report all bedbugs infestations to the employer so preventive measures can be taken.
Refrain from discussing bedbug risk outside of the workplace.
An employer who proactively educates workers and addresses bedbugs prevention and infestations will be in a stronger position to manage workplace refusals relating to bedbugs and defend its health and safety record. By providing employees with appropriate PPE such as coveralls, shoe covers, or gloves, as well as sealable plastic containers to protect workers' equipment and personal belongings, the risk of exposure and workplace claims can be effectively reduced.