Sun Protection for Outdoor Workers
This short guide on sun protection is both for employers of outdoor workers and the employees themselves. Outdoor workers include construction workers, farmers, agricultural and horticultural workers, fishermen, gardeners, postal workers, council workers, refuse collectors, couriers and others. The guide provides useful information on the topic of skin cancers which are much more common in outdoor workers than those who work indoors. It also outlines measures that employers should have in place to protect their employees.
Cancer is a disease of the body cells. The cells do not behave as normal and keep on growing to form a primary tumour. If a cancer is malignant, the cells can break away from the body part where they form and be carried by the bloodstream or lymph vessels elsewhere and form a secondary tumour.
Skin cancer is caused by abnormal growth of the cells nearest the skin, squamous, basal and melanocytes. Squamous and basal cells form non melanoma skin cancer while melanocytes cells which give the skin its pigment or colour form melanoma skin cancer. Basal cell cancers (BCC) are more strongly related to acute sun burn events in childhood and intermittent adult exposure while squamous cell cancer (SCC) is mostly a result of chronic long term occupational sun exposure.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Ireland with over 13,000 cases diagnosed annually. The annual rates of both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers are increasing.
The main cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight. Sun exposure is the best natural source of Vitamin D and is important for good general health. We can all enjoy the outdoors but we just need to think about how we protect our skin when outside. Outdoor workers are at higher risk than other workers.
Outdoor workers such as people working in construction may be particularly at risk in heatwaves from high outdoor temperatures as well as from UV exposure. You need to keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. You also need to protect your skin from the sun. The harmful effects from the sun, like sunburn and skin cancer, come from UV radiation (UVA and UVB). If you work outdoors, you might be exposed to 2-3 times more UV radiation from the sun than someone who works indoors, putting you at higher risk of skin cancer. If you spend all or part of the day regularly working outdoors, you can reduce your risk of skin cancer by protecting your skin from the sun’s UV rays (by being SunSmart).
The general advice is to keep out of the sun when possible especially if working outdoors when the UV is strongest. The UV level is measured in a scale called the UV Index. The UV index in Ireland is typically moderate to high (i.e. 3 or above) between 11am to 3pm, April-September. If working outdoors during this time, protective measures should be taken. If possible, schedule outdoor work before 11am or after 3pm. If you go outdoors to work, protect your skin by using shade, wear clothing that covers the skin, a wide brimmed hat, sunglasses and sunscreen of SPF30+ for adults. Because UV damage builds up over time, outdoor workers should consider using sun protection all year-round.
Information on the UV Index and advice for protecting yourself is available from Met Éireann here.
Chronic exposure to UV radiation can cause corneal damage, cataracts and macular degeneration. Sunglasses with 100% UVA and UVB protection should be worn. Especially, when there is reflection / glare off a nearby surface, for example near water. Wrap-around sunglasses provide the most protection.
Employer Protective Measures
Employers need to make sure that their workers can easily keep hydrated when working in the sun and can protect their skin from UV radiation damage.
There are a range of protective measures as follows:
- Take measures to reduce the time and intensity of exposure to direct sunlight when the UV is strongest.
- Check the UV index online or using weather app
- Measures to protect skin should be taken if the UV index is 3 or above, typically between the hours of 11am and 3pm, April-September.
- Plan the work. Can the time and intensity in direct sunlight be limited when the UV index is high? Can shade be provided? Can staff be rotated between outdoors and indoor / shaded areas?
- Ensure breaks are taken in the shade
- Ensure workers have easy access to safe drinking water. Workers should have enough time to hydrate – as the outdoor temperature rises the frequency of water breaks should go up.
- Give information to employees about the dangers of sun exposure
- Inform employees how to protect their skin (the Sun Smart code 5S’s).
- Encourage employees to cover up, keep clothing on with sleeves down and collars up, wear wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses (wraparound are best), wear clothing made from close-woven material that does not allow sunlight through.
- Provide broad-spectrum sunscreen (UVA and UVB protection) with an SPF of at least 30+. Reapply regularly.
- Educate and encourage employees to self-check skin for any changes or unusual moles or spots.
A combination of the measures should be implemented.
Be Sun Smart
Make it easy for workers to follow the Healthy Ireland SunSmart 5 S’s:
- Slip on clothing that covers your skin, such as long sleeves, collared t-shirts.
- Slop on sunscreen on exposed areas. Use sunscreen SPF minimum 30 or higher. Apply 20 minutes before going outside and re-apply every two hours – more often if perspiring.
- Slap on a wide-brimmed hat.
- Seek shade - especially if outdoors between 11am and 3pm when UV rays are at their strongest. If possible, schedule outdoor work before 11am or after 3pm.
- Slide on wraparound sunglasses to protect your eyes.
The risk to health relating to exposure to radiation is stated in section 8(2)(d) of the Safety, Health and Welfare Act 2005 (No. 10 of 2005) and under section 19 of the Act employers are required to carry out a risk assessment and put measures in place to protect employees.