The toughest pests to manage - and how to manage them

Ron Harrison, Ph.D.
Ron Harrison, Ph.D.

Flies, cockroaches and rodents have consistently been reported by Association for the Healthcare Environment members as some of the most common pests to show up in healthcare facilities.

These pests are more than difficult, and their presence can be more than just unsightly. Cockroaches can spread diseases, and their droppings and cast skins can aggravate allergies and even cause asthma attacks. Flies can spread disease-causing organisms where they land. Rats and mice are known to spread bacteria like salmonella and E.coli, as well as more than 35 diseases worldwide.

In addition to health risks, pests like rodents and cockroaches can damage your facility's reputation – even on a national scale. In 2015, a hospital in Tampa came under fire and made national headlines as rats overwhelmed the facility. This spring, a Chicago-area VA hospital faced scrutiny from national watchdog reporters after cockroaches infested the hospital's kitchen and dining areas.

Fortunately, there is an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy for roaches, rodents, flies and other bacteria-carrying pests. IPM relies on chemical treatments only as a last result, focusing instead on proactive strategies like exclusion, facility maintenance, stringent sanitation practices and ongoing inspections to keep pests away.

Managing rodents: All about exclusion

Just like humans, rats and mice need food, water and safe shelter to survive. They also want a warm place to spend the upcoming cold months. Some rodent species can burrow and live up to 100 yards away from your building and they don't need much of an opening to get inside. Rats can squeeze through openings as small as a quarter, and mice can squeeze through holes the size of a dime. This makes exclusion, one of the tenets of IPM, a top priority.  

  • Seal cracks and crevices – Regularly inspect the exterior of your facility for any cracks that may develop into larger holes. Seal any holes in exterior walls with water-resistant sealant and metal mesh.

  • Protect your trash – Keep trash cans lined, covered and tightly sealed. Keep dumpsters as far away from the facility as possible and ask your waste management company to clean and switch your dumpsters regularly.

  • Keep landscaping clean – Keep vegetation trimmed back a couple of feet from your building, and rake up leaves quickly so that rodents cannot use them for cover. As an extra step, consider installing a 2-foot wide gravel strip around the perimeter of the building.

  • Take a look at your roof – Leaking HVAC units are a common culprit for providing pests with water, so be sure that facility maintenance staff conducts regular inspections of these areas.

  • Work with your pest management provider to place tamper-resistant bait stations around the exterior of the facility. Rodents will feed on the baits, which helps indicate activity. Some bait stations are inconspicuous – talk with your pest management provider about options.

Managing flies: Shut the doors

High traffic entrances can serve as a welcome opportunity for pests to sneak into your facility. But there are several tactics you can use to deter these unwelcome guests from making it inside.

  • Start with outdoor lighting – You can deter flying insects by swapping out mercury vapor lamps, which attract pests, with sodium-vapor lights outside next to entryways. To draw them away even more, consider placing these attracting mercury-vapor lights at least 100 feet from your facility to draw pests away.

  • Create an air curtain – Build an air “wall” flies can't fly through by installing appropriately sized air curtain units – fans that blow air out – above exterior doors.  

  • Establish positive airflow – Work with an HVAC professional to make sure you have positive airflow – a simple test for this involves holding a piece of paper in a doorway and observing which way it blows.

  • Install automatic doors if possible. Automatic doors keep frequently used entrances closed when not in use and give pests fewer opportunities to pass through. Go the extra mile by installing double doors to create a vestibule, which adds another barrier that pests must get by to gain access to your building.

  • Mind your loading docks – Make sure receiving doors are kept shut as often as possible and form a tight seal when closed.

  • No matter the entrance, add door sweeps and weather stripping to minimize any gaps that pests may attempt to crawl through.

Managing cockroaches: Keep it clean

Roaches love a free meal, and food service and storage areas inside hospitals and extended care facilities can be full of them. Even facilities without big kitchens and dining areas can attract cockroaches because of food left behind in break or patient rooms by staff and patients.

In addition to sealing your facility through exclusion practices, you can work inside your facility to make it less attractive to these resilient pests.

  • Put food and ingredients away in airtight containers in food preparation areas, and empty your trash bins at least daily to avoid food waste becoming a target.

  • Watch out for crumbs – Make sure that patient and employee break rooms are free of crumbs and food sitting in the open, and clean up spills immediately. The smallest crumb can be a big meal for a cockroach.

  • Vacuum, sweep and mop on a daily basis. You can also use organic cleaners to break down grease and grime in and around floor drains – another possible food source.

  • Inspect incoming shipments, as cockroaches are known hitchhikers. Also, throw away any unused cardboard boxes immediately, as roaches can use these for harborage – and even as a food source.

  • Develop a pest sighting protocol for your team, identifying key staff members that employees can report issues to. Also, create a written sanitation program and educate your staff on the role they play in it.

Talk with a pest management professional about these and other IPM practices you can use at your facility to help prevent rodents, flies and cockroaches. Your provider can also provide training and educational materials to help keep your staff up to date with the latest tactics for keeping pests away.

Working together, you can help ensure your facility stays clean and clear of filthy pests.

Ron Harrison, Entomologist, Ph.D., is Director of Technical Services for Orkin.


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