Working on sunshine

These days we are frequently warned of the dangers of the sun and ultraviolet (UV) rays, but we rarely think about those working outdoors, who sometimes are not even aware of the risks. UV rays pose harmful and even deadly risks, but there are ways to minimise them.

Roofers, construction workers, gardeners, builders, electricians; all spend most of their working day in the light of a silent threat to the health of their skin. Without adequate UV protection, they are putting themselves at risk.

According to a recent study by Imperial College London, working outdoors could lead to one death and around five new cases of melanoma skin cancer a week. The study, which was published in the British Journal of Cancer, highlighted that it was construction workers who recorded the highest number of deaths (44%), followed by agriculture workers (23%) and public administration and defence workers, including the police and armed forces (10%).

The findings from the study were hardly surprising, given that IOSH’s No Time To Lose solar campaign revealed that despite working outside for up to seven hours a day, only 59% of construction employees regularly applied sunscreen.

Who is responsible for effective skin protection? The worker, or the health and safety manager at the workplace? The truth is, both parties need to understand the risk that working outside poses and the simple ways to minimise them.

Understanding the threat

UV light is invisible, and there are three distinct types according to their wavelength. UVA rays contribute to skin burning, skin cancer and premature ageing. They have a longer wavelength, which means they are able to penetrate deeper into the base layer of the skin. UVB lights are the primary cause of sunburn and also contribute to skin cancer. UVB rays have a much shorter wavelength and burns the outer layer of the skin. Lastly, UVC radiation is blocked by the ozone layer while UVA and UVB reaches the earth’s surface. UVC rays are created artificially during industrial processes, such as welding. In other words, they differ in their biological activity and the extent to which they can penetrate the skin. The shorter the wavelength, the more harmful the UV radiation. However, shorter wavelength UV radiation is less able to penetrate the skin.

Often there are misconceptions regarding when protection from UV rays is required, which can make compliance problematic. UV rays are not affected by sunlight or temperature, and can’t be seen or felt, meaning outdoor workers are often unaware that they are at risk.

Interestingly, it has also been suggested that these same UVB wavelengths can be beneficial if exposure is minimal and controlled. These wavelengths can kick off the chemical and metabolic chain reaction that produces Vitamin D. According to Professor Andrew Wright, consultant dermatologist at Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, “15-20 minutes of unprotected sun exposure, without skin reddening or burning, per day, should be sufficient for most people to produce the required Vitamin D level.” It is, therefore crucial that health and safety managers are able to establish when UV protection is necessary, and for this to be effectively conveyed to employees.

Duty of care

In terms of solar exposure, employers have a duty of care to protect their employees from hazards in the workplace and according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidelines, UV radiation should be considered an occupational hazard for people who work outdoors. However, many employers are failing to meet this responsibility, as a study by the University of Nottingham and IOSH revealed that 70% of employees claimed that they had never received training on the risks of working outside.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it is estimated that between two and three million non-melanoma skin cancers and 132,000 melanoma skin cancers occur globally each year.

The key to combatting skin damage and even skin cancer for outdoor workers is by changing their attitude on the protection of their skin through education and training, while also providing employees with effective solutions.

Such a change in behaviour does not happen overnight, though. A detailed introduction – informing staff about the risks of unprotected UV exposure and giving them practical advice on how they can protect themselves – should be followed by an ongoing effort to engage staff on the issue. Education on UV protection is not a one-off event; it is a constant conversation. Regular presentations or staff meetings can help to keep it going, while posters or freely available leaflets and brochures are a good way to raise awareness on a day-to-day level.

UV protection explained

Before educating employees on the solutions that they should use, they must first be aware when these solutions should be used. Workers must be aware that for most skin types, effective protection will be required when the UV Index – adopted by the WHO – is three or above, but of course extra protection may be needed for those with fair, freckled skin for example.

When it comes to choosing an effective solution for outdoor workers, it is crucial that health and safety managers choose a ‘broad spectrum’ sunscreen which provides protection against UVA, UVB and UVC rays.

With regards to application, for the average sized adult, it is recommended by the British Association of Dermatologists that people should apply at least one teaspoon of sunscreen to each arm, leg, front of body, back of body and face (including ears and neck). Where possible, it should be applied to clean dry skin 15 minutes before the initial exposure, and reapplied liberally every two to three hours. For industrial workplaces, it is also crucial that the sunscreen chosen is both water and sweat-resistant, to ensure that they remain protected at work. Additionally, it is important for sunscreen to offer quick skin absorption to ensure that the hand dexterity with tools isn’t negatively impacted.

For outdoor workers who spend the majority of their day outside, it is also recommended that a high Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is used – either minimum SPF30 or SPF50 is advised. Sunscreens with a lower SPF such as SPF15 will only be able to filter out 93% of incoming UVB rays, whereas SPF30 and SPF50 sunscreens are able to filter out 97% and 98% of all incoming rays respectively.

Through implementing training for all employees, and introducing sunscreen dispensers and the relevant educational material, employers will contribute to a more informed and healthier workforce and will have minimised their risk of being diagnosed with skin cancer.

Paul Jakeway is marketing director at Deb 

HSE advice on outdoor workers and sun exposure at: hse.gov.uk/skin/sunprotect.htm