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May 27, 2008

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Sun safety

Sun safety explained

As the summer months arrive and temperatures rise, are safety and health practitioners ready to protect outdoor workers from the effects of the sun? Anthony Hubbard explores.

There are all sorts of myths and misconceptions flying around about how we should protect our skin from the sun’s harmful ultra-violet (UV) rays, whether while out and about as part of our jobs, or while making the most of the warmer months during our leisure time.

What is clear is that, as individuals, and as employers with responsibility for the health and safety of employees, we need to get a better understanding of how much damage we are doing to our health when we spend time out in the sun without adequate protection.

The stark facts are that rates of malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, have increased by 43 per cent in the last 10 years. In the UK, occurrences of malignant melanoma have increased almost five times in males, and have more than tripled in females, over the last 25 years.1 This makes skin cancer the fastest rising cancer in Britain.

Crucially, it is not just sun worshippers who fall prey to melanoma. Individuals who develop skin cancer do not always have a history of deliberate sunbathing. UV radiation also represents a significant workplace hazard to employees who spend some, or all, of their working day outdoors.

Dr Iain Foulds, consultant dermatologist at Birmingham City Hospital, comments: “Outdoor workers are exposed to the sun for extended periods of time throughout their working life, and receive significantly more UV radiation than people who work indoors.

“This means that they have a higher-than-average risk of developing common skin cancers, such as melanoma, and with incidences of skin cancer ever increasing, employers need to be aware of the risks they are taking when they allow their staff to work outside without using adequate sun protection.”

How the law applies

So, what can employers do in a practical sense to ensure that they are fulfilling their duty to their employees? Do employers take sufficient measures to encourage — or even enforce — their staff to take sun safety as seriously as they might other health and safety considerations?

Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 states that it is the duty of every employer “to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees”. This means that employers must ensure their employees can work safely, and without risk to their health, and includes unprotected exposure to UV radiation.

Section 2 also makes clear that employers should provide “information, instruction, training and supervision as is necessary to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety at work of his employees”. This means that employers are legally bound to inform their employees of the dangers that spending time in the sun can bring.

Under section 7 of the Act, employees have a responsibility for their own safety and health, and to “cooperate. . . as far as is necessary to enable that duty or requirement to be conformed or complied with”. This means that if an employer implements UV-protection policies and provides sun-protective measures for their employees, staff must conform.

Finally, under section 9, the employer is unable to charge employees for products, such as sun-screens or protective clothing, or training concerned with sun protection.

It is clear that cooperation between employers and employees is required to implement any effective measures to help minimise UV exposure at work. This may include: reducing the amount of time outdoor workers spend in the sun; providing and maintaining equipment needed to protect workers from the sun; and providing information, instruction, training and supervision to implement safe working practices that reduce UV exposure.

The HSE’s advice for employers on protecting outdoor workers from the sun highlights the benefits of giving sun care the attention it deserves, including: “fewer absence days through sunburn, a healthier and better-informed workforce, and reduced risk to employees of skin cancer from long-term sun exposure”.2

There is a number of measures that safety and health practitioners can take to ensure that the requirements of the HSWA 1974 are being met, with regards to sun safety.

Advice and education

It is a common misconception that a tan is a sign of good health in a person. In fact, having tanned skin is a sign of sun damage, and employers should aim to educate their staff on the facts about sun protection.

An employer might consider using enforcement measures to ensure its outdoor workers take sun protection seriously, and include sun care as part of its health and safety rules. Such measures are acknowledged by Dr Foulds, who concedes that implementing a sun-protection strategy may not be all plain sailing: “Let’s face it, the reality is that many outdoor workers, particularly in industries that tend to be male-dominated, such as construction, might regard regularly applying a sun cream or lotion, or covering up, as a bit ‘sissy’,” he says.

“[I]f we cast our minds back, construction workers may also have not wanted to wear a hard hat and high visibility vest on site. But, when it was made a condition of entering the site, they were initially forced to comply, and now they don’t think twice about wearing protective clothing before getting on with the job at hand. Is there a reason why the same could not be applied to sun protection?”

Foulds suggests that an effective way of protecting employees’ skin from UV rays could involve a combination of educating workers about why it is so important that they look after their skin when outdoors, with sufficient resources provided for them at no cost, so they can act upon what they learn. This could then be backed up by a means of enforcing sun-protection ‘rules’, or company policies.

Protective products and clothing

Workers should be encouraged to use sun-protection products on any part of the body they can’t cover up. The British Association of Dermatologists’ latest sun awareness guidelines recommend that outdoor workers use a sun cream of at least SPF (sun protection factor) 30. Indeed, bearing in mind the fact that people often forget to re-apply product, SPF 30 is highly recommended as the minimum protection for those who work outdoors for long periods of time.

While sunburn is mainly caused by UVB rays, research now shows that UVA rays may be just as, if not more, significant in causing skin cancer. So make sure that the product you source provides the highest UVA protection, as the SPF indicator refers only to UVB protection. Product bought in bulk from general suppliers is often an old-style cream that protects against UVB damage but not UVA, or, at best, has little UVA protection.

Between 10am to 3pm, sun cream should be applied 30 minutes before exposure to the sun, re-applied every two hours, and immediately after vigorous exercise. If workers are sweating, the sun cream will gradually leave the skin, so regular application is vital for full protection.

Outdoor workers should also be encouraged to cover up as much as possible, by wearing lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and trousers, for example. Encourage them also to ‘check’ their clothing to ensure that the fabric is dense enough to prevent UV rays from passing through the fibres. A suggestion would be to issue standard summer-wear to workers that has already been light-checked. Where possible, workers should also wear a hat with a three-inch brim to cover the face, ears and neck.

Encouraging behavioural change

Employees should be encouraged to behave so that they can protect their skin from the sun.

Shade is one of the most effective forms of protection from the sun and can be provided naturally from trees or dense shrubs, or created artificially from permanent or portable structures. It is important workers find shade, particularly at lunchtimes, when the sun is at its hottest, and during all breaks.

Bear in mind that damaging UV rays from the sun can be reflected from water, glass, and other surfaces. Skin damage caused by the sun can therefore occur while people are sitting in the shade, so product should still be applied.

It is also advisable to site water points and rest areas in the shade. Consider, too, whether flexible working hours can be introduced during the hottest months of the year, so that employees do not have to work when the sun is at its fiercest.

Leading the way

There are many things a safety and health practitioner can do to improve the health and safety of outdoor workers, with regards to sun care, and to minimise the short and long-term health risks posed by unprotected UV exposure. Practitioners are in an ideal position to influence, educate and encourage employees to stop and think seriously about the damage they could be doing to their health whenever they step outside in the course of their work. Ultimately, intervention now could save lives and reduce litigation in the future.

The rules of sun safety

• Cover up — workers should wear light-weight clothing

• Slap on sun cream — at least SPF 30 sun protection on exposed skin with a five-star UVA protection rating, re-applied every two hours

• Wear a hat — a three-inch brim will offer your staff the best protection

• Find shade — create or find shade for your workers and encourage them to use it, especially during breaks

• Water — staff should drink water regularly to prevent dehydration


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