Workplace

The Creepy World of Office Pests


Even the cleanest office can sometimes come down with a pest problem

Photograph by GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images

Even the cleanest office can sometimes come down with a pest problem

Greg Sanders discovered that a mouse lived underneath his office chair the hard way: when it ran out from between his legs and scared his boss.

“We were in my office talking, and my boss was sitting across from me when all of a sudden his face turned white,” says Sanders, who works for a publishing company in Chapel Hill, N.C. “He starts pointing to my feet and yelling, ‘What was that! Y’all, what IS that!’ I’m getting ready to feel a snake slither up my leg or something, I don’t know what’s going on.”

Just then, a mouse scampered between Sanders’s feet and ran down the hallway. His co-workers screamed and tried to catch it, but it escaped. A few weeks later, it happened again—same chair, same between-the-legs escape, possibly even the same mouse. The publishing company operated out of an old, poorly maintained building in a residential neighborhood, and although an exterminator had treated the building, the rodents kept coming back. “Finally we turned over the chair in my office. Mice had built a nest under the lining of my chair,” says Sanders. He and his co-workers were so disgusted that the entire company moved to a different building on the other side of town.

Even the cleanest office can sometimes come down with a pest problem—although not all of them move buildings because of it. According to the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), the three most common office invaders are cockroaches, mice, and bedbugs. The first two come into the office looking for water (the bathroom) and food (communal kitchens, a messy co-worker’s desk). Merge Records once had a mouse problem; according to publicist Christina Rentz, the rodent even ate a banana off someone’s desk. Similarly, a mouse once made his home under my editor’s desk—at his old job, thankfully—where it feasted upon the discarded food wrappers that he halfheartedly threw near, but not actually into, his trash can. My editor learned his lesson and now his desk is much more tidy. For instance, right now he only has three coffee cups in front of his computer and his reading pile is down to less than 70 books.

Offices can guard against cockroaches, ants, and mice by keeping everything clean and crumb-free, but bedbugs are a different problem. “They are not sanitation-oriented,” says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the NPMA. “They feed off of humans—it’s gross to say, but they drink your blood.” They’re also hitchhikers; if they appear in an office, Henriksen says, “it’s usually because they’ve come in on belongings from people who have bedbugs in their homes.” Then they will travel home with you by jumping on your belongings.

Despite our best efforts at eradicating them, the bedbug epidemic is growing. In 2000, fewer than 25 percent of pest control professionals in the U.S. reported that they’d handled a bedbug infestation case. Last year, that number jumped to 99 percent. They’ve been found in some big-name places: New York City’s Time Warner Center and Niketown, Chicago’s Chase Tower, and even in Detroit’s public transportation system. There’s not much you can do to keep an unknowingly infested co-worker from bringing them into the office, although Henriksen recommends storing your purse or bookbag somewhere above the floor, so they’re not as likely to hop onto it.

This year is especially bad for insect infestations; July was the warmest month on record in the U.S. and the hotter it gets outside, the faster bugs reproduce. And because of the recent drought across much of the U.S., they’ll also be coming indoors in search of water. “Cockroaches are around all the time, no matter what,” says Henriksen. “But there will probably be a lot of spiders this year.”

Great, so not only is this too-hot summer going to make us all sweaty and uncomfortable, but it’s going to creep us out and make us itchy, too.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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