A drastic rise in reported cases of bed bugs in Paris has caused panic to spread to the UK. Since then, cases in major cities across Britain have emerged, with London, Luton and Manchester all reporting sightings of bed bugs in recent weeks.

While they don’t spread disease, bed bugs can be notoriously hard to get rid of and can cause significant physical discomfort, as well as psychological stress. Over recent years, bed bugs have become more resistant to insecticides, making most over-the-counter treatments redundant. And with an increase in travel after the pandemic, the bed bug population has the perfect opportunity to multiply.

What has caused the spread of bed bugs?

Bed bugs spread by attaching themselves to everyday items we carry, such as shoes, clothing and even books. Once brought into a new environment, they can survive in carpets, other soft furnishings such as sofas, mattresses and headboards, in furniture and behind peeling wallpaper.

Female bed bugs can lay up to seven eggs per day, meaning a small problem can quickly become bigger. And while they become dormant in colder months, symptoms of an infestation will typically return in warmer weather.

The current rise in cases does not appear to be just social media hearsay. As Reuters reports, pest control company Rentokil has reported a 32% increase in enquiries between January and September of 2023 and a 65% increase in recorded activity from the previous year. Even London Mayor Sadiq Khan has described the potential presence of bed bugs in London as “a source of real concern.”

But are these new cases, or simply existing infestations that have only now come to light following the increase in awareness? Professor Warren Booth, associate professor of urban entomology at Virginia Tech University, suggests it’s the latter. He is reported to have said that several of these newly reported cases have always been there, but that ‘many infestations at low levels will go unnoticed.’

What is the bed bug risk to businesses?

For businesses with employees who work from home, the perceived risk may be relatively low. But if remote workers discover an infestation, the effects can range from practical disruptions in the home to insomnia and low mental health, all of which can impact productivity and team culture. Similarly, employees can bring the pests into any kind of workplace on their shoes or clothing, where an infestation can quickly take root.

This is sadly the case for a HMRC tax office in Ipswich, which has been actively battling an infestation of bed bugs for the last 12 months. The BBC reports that management has sought expert advice and used a range of treatments, including chemical pesticides, chemical-free Diatomaceous Earth dust treatments, steam cleaning, and even sniffer dog assessments in the affected areas. Despite their best efforts, the infestation remains challenging to eradicate.

What should businesses do about bed bugs?

Workplaces with high volumes of people staying and leaving are likely to see an increased risk. Businesses that operate in hospitality, catering, tourism or leisure industries should already have robust health and safety policies in place to deal with the possibility of these risks. This might include guidance for staff and customers on preventative measures, or health and safety compliance training.

In light of the increasing wave of reports however, businesses in all sectors could benefit from carrying out an up to date risk assessment. This should especially take place following any warning signs, reported sightings, or complaints that might indicate an infestation.

Now may be the time to make a renewed effort and implement a more preventative approach. USA Today reports of one hotel general manager who incentivised staff by offering cash bonuses if any bed bugs were discovered in order to safeguard paying customers. Any infestations should still be quickly contained and eradicated before they have the chance to spread.

If you suspect you might be dealing with an infestation, it’s important to put together a tailored action plan that addresses the specific risks posed to your workplace. This may involve renewed guidance for people on site, and continuing risk assessments to keep the risks of potential disruption as low as possible.