Working in the Sun
The sunny weather is here and it’s time for employers to update their risk assessment to protect staff from the risk of skin cancer when working outside.
Research has established exposure to sun is the primary cause of skin cancer, which means that external workers that are outside for long periods, are at a higher risk of this disease.
It is easy to forget the need for protection against skin cancer when you are more focused on the risk of injury related to the job itself.
So how can you reduce the risk of skin cancer? What action can you take to protect your staff?
There are 3 main types of UV rays:
- UVA rays age skin cells and can damage their DNA. These rays are linked to long-term skin damage such as wrinkles, but they are also thought to play a role in some skin cancers. Most tanning beds give off large amounts of UVA, which has been found to increase skin cancer risk.
- UVB rays have slightly more energy than UVA rays. They can damage skin cells’ DNA directly and are the main rays that cause sunburns. These are thought to cause most skin cancers.
- UVC rays have more energy than the other types of UV rays, but they don’t get through our atmosphere and are not in sunlight. They are not normally a cause of skin cancer.
Both UVA and UVB rays can damage skin and cause skin cancer. UVB rays are a more potent cause of at least some skin cancers, but based on what’s known today there are no safe UV rays.
The pattern of exposure may also be important. For example frequent sunburns in childhood may increase the risk for some types of skin cancer many years or even decades later.
Skin cancers are one result of getting too much sun, however there are other effects as well. Sunburn and tanning are the short-term results of too much exposure to UV rays and are signs of skin damage.
UV rays are strongest between 10 am and 4 pm
Employers need to minimise exposure to the sun for all their outside workers and introduce control measures to reduce exposure such as choosing the right protective equipment, clothing and skin care products as well as communicating and advising employees on the need for UV protection and how to check for early signs of skin damage, changes or abnormalities.
To protect those working outdoors, employers need to consider in their risk assessments protection from the sun and whether workers need protection from heat stress. The first part of this information section looks at sun protection and the second part looks at heat stress.
Employers should ensure staff wear sun protective clothing to cover exposed skin.
- Long-sleeved, closely-woven shirts and long trousers or skirts provide the best protection. If you can see light through the clothes then ultraviolet radiation is getting through as well.
- If shorts are worn, a pair that approaches the knee will offer more protection than a shorter pair.
- A collar will protect the skin on the back of the neck. If a lot of bending is required, have a flap on the back of the hat, which will keep the sun off the back of the neck.
- A hat will help keep the sun off the face, neck and ears, and protect bald spots. Broad-brimmed hats are best, but the brim should be at least 3 inches wide.
- Hardhats can have a flap or extra brim fitted to them.
Use an SPF 15 or higher water-resistant sunscreen before going outdoors and reapply every two hours. If sweating freely, reapply more often. Choose a gel, stick or lotion form of sunscreen according to personal preference; no one form is more effective than another. Make sure the face, lips, neck, ears, arms and back of the hands are protected.
Ensure there is no adverse skin reaction to the produces you apply, check on the product label.
Ultraviolet radiation bounces off water, sand, concrete, light-coloured surfaces and snow. People who work near these areas will need to take extra care. To protect your eyes, be sure to wear sunglasses or safety glasses that filter out UV rays.
When looking to protect staff the risk assessment must consider all the factor of prolonged working outside, it may not always be the case that it is a sunny day and even on a cloudy day the sun’s rays can present a problem regarding skin cancer.
Organise the job so tasks requiring outdoor work get done in a shaded or covered area it may be possible to erect a shelter or use trees and buildings used for protection. Consider if some of the work can be undertaken in the morning to avoid the higher sun intensity
For break periods a shady spot should be made available and employees reminded that even at break period sun bathing may still give rise to sun burn and heat stress
The amount of UV exposure a person gets depends on the strength of the rays, the length of time the skin is exposed and whether the skin is protected with clothing or sunscreen.
Heat stress is not just a summer issue however it may occur more often give higher ambient air temperatures. Heat stress can affect individuals in different ways and some people are more susceptible to it than others.
Typical symptoms of heat stress include:
- An inability to concentrate.
- Muscle cramps.
- Heat rash.
- Severe thirst – a late symptom of heat stress.
- Heat exhaustion – fatigue, giddiness, nausea, headache, moist skin.
- Heat stroke – hot dry skin, confusion, convulsions and eventual loss of consciousness. This is the most severe disorder and can result in death if not detected at an early stage.
Reducing the risk of Heat Stress:
- Control the temperature.
- Provide mechanical aids.
- Prevent dehydration.
- Provide personal protective equipment and training for staff.
- Identify and assess who is at risk e.g. vulnerable persons.
- Health Monitoring.
If you suspect that you or someone else is suffering from heat related illness:
- Seek immediate medical attention.
- Move to a cool shaded area.
- Loosen or remove heavy clothing.
- Drink water.
- Fan and mist with water.
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