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UV rays – a real threat to outdoor workers

24 May 2018

Harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays are a serious issue and can cause major damage to workers’ skin including burns, premature skin ageing and cell mutations. In the worst cases, it can result in skin cancer. In the UK, five outdoor workers are diagnosed with skin cancer every day, yet 90% of skin cancer deaths could have been prevented if exposure to UV rays were controlled. Paul Jakeway, marketing director at Deb, explains how employers can take action to help protect workers

The current situation

Today, the risk of getting skin cancer from sun exposure is widely understood amongst consumers and is often heavily communicated around holiday season. However, in many industry sectors, the risks aren’t acknowledged or managed, which is often due to a lack of awareness or insufficient training for employees. 

In reality, outdoor workers are at more risk, yet two thirds of UK construction workers, who spend an average of nearly seven hours a day outside, don’t know the full extent of the dangers.

What is UV?

UV radiation is a type of radiation that is produced by the sun, with the sun’s UV rays being the main cause of cancer.

There are three distinct types: UVA, UVB and UVC rays. UVA is the biggest threat for outdoor workers. It represents 95% of the UV reaching the surface of the earth and can penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin, contributing to skin ageing and the development of skin cancers.

According to the universal UV index adopted by the World Health Organisation, when the UV level index reaches level 3, a minimum SPF30 sun cream with broad spectrum UVA protection must be applied.

The aim of the index is to warn people of the increased risk and encourage them to change their behaviour to protect themselves against the risk of cancer. 

Educating workers – the positives and the negatives

The sun does have many benefits such as stimulating the metabolism, increasing oxygen levels in the cells and boosting the immune system, and just 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure per day is sufficient for most people to produce the required vitamin D levels. 

When it comes to being UV aware, a lack of education for workers is the biggest setback. There’s a common misconception that workers can only be affected by UV rays when they are exposed to direct sunlight, but 80% of the sun’s UV rays can pass through clouds, therefore sun protection is crucial even on overcast days.

It is also wrongly assumed that one application of sun cream is enough to withstand an entire day’s sun exposure, when in fact, it must be liberally reapplied every two to three hours. 

Implementing a solution 

In accordance with HSE guidelines, employers have a duty of care to protect employees from hazards in the workplace and UV radiation should be considered an occupational hazard for outdoor workers, in the same way that PPE equipment is used to protect workers from falls from height.

Yet despite this, 70% of workers in large UK construction companies have not had any training on the risks of working in the sun.

In reality, the solutions and measures required to provide adequate protection are simple. First and foremost, employers should implement and encourage the adoption of the 5 S approach: 

SLIP on sun protection clothing

SLOP on minimum SPF30 sun cream

SLAP on a hat and neck protection

SLIDE on some sunglasses

SHADE from the sun when possible

This approach should be combined with training tools such as toolbox talks, awareness posters and educational guides for employees, and professional sun cream should be made easily accessible to workers around the site. 

Even when workers are on the move, moved from site to site or can’t access UV stations, employers can provide high protection sun cream dispensers and tubes. Employers can also provide sun boards with mirrors and UV level indicators, which will ensure workers are encouraged to apply sun cream correctly. 

Now is the time for employers to take responsibility for the education of workers and pro-active implementation of preventative measures against this serious issue. Don’t leave it until a worker’s life is affected by skin cancer to make a change.