As the summer sun blazes down, the focus often shifts to protecting outdoor workers from extreme heat. Another danger that often goes unaddressed, however, is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays. Outdoor workers face significant risks from UV radiation as they spend long hours outside. As an employer, prioritizing the well-being of your outdoor employees means taking proactive measures to shield your workforce from the sun’s harmful effects.
The Role of UV Rays
UV radiation is not limited to bright, sunny days. It is present even on cloudy days. Two types of UV rays, UVA and UVB, penetrate the earth’s atmosphere and pose risks to outdoor workers. UVB rays are particularly harmful and considered the primary cause of most skin cancers. Skin cancer is the most prevalent type of cancer in the United States, with one study suggesting that about 6.1 million adults are treated for basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas each year. Workers who spend significant time in the sun face increased vulnerability to skin cancer. There are three main types of skin cancer:
- Basal Cell Carcinoma: This prevalent type of skin cancer typically stays localized. It accounts for approximately 8 out of 10 skin cancer cases.
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma: Another common skin cancer type that usually remains localized. Around 2 out of 10 skin cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.
- Melanoma: While less common, melanoma is the most aggressive and lethal form of skin cancer. If not treated promptly, it can rapidly spread to other body parts, resulting in fatalities. Melanoma comprises less than 1% of all skin cancer cases.
The sun’s UV rays are stronger during the spring and summer months, necessitating extra precautions for workers during these seasons.
Shield Your Workforce in High Sun Industries
To safeguard employees, employers should first identify job roles that involve significant sun exposure.
Fishing: Workers in the fishing industry often spend long hours out at sea, exposed to direct sunlight without much shade. This profession carries a high risk of sun exposure due to the lack of protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays.
Agriculture: Farmers and agricultural workers spend a considerable amount of time working in open fields under the sun. Prolonged exposure to UV radiation can pose serious health risks to these individuals.
Construction: Construction workers frequently work outdoors, often in open construction sites with limited shade. The combination of sun exposure and reflective surfaces can amplify the risk of UV-related health issues.
Aviation: Pilots and aviation personnel are exposed to higher levels of UV radiation at high altitudes. The atmosphere’s protective layer is thinner at higher elevations, increasing the intensity of UV rays.
Trucking: Truck drivers, especially long-haul drivers, spend extended periods behind the wheel, exposed to direct sunlight through the vehicle’s windows. The cumulative effect of daily sun exposure while driving can lead to skin damage and increase the risk of skin cancer.
Military Service: Many military duties require outdoor activities, field training, and deployments to areas with intense sun exposure. This puts military personnel at risk of sun-related health problems.
This is not to say that these are the only industries with sun exposure risks. Once high sun exposure roles are identified within the workforce, however, employers can take proactive steps to implement tailored protection measures for these employees.
Providing Sun Protection Measures
Once at-risk workers are identified, providing appropriate sun safety equipment and education can significantly reduce the risk of skin cancer, heat stress, and other health issues related to sun exposure. Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as sun protective clothing, UV-resistant eye wear, hats and hand protection can go along way to protect workers against UV rays.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also advises employers to offer adequate sun protection for outdoor workers. This includes providing tents, shelters, and cooling stations at worksites. Simple steps such as scheduling regular breaks and promoting sunscreen applications can significantly enhance workplace safety.
The Power of Sunscreen
Encouraging the regular use of sunscreen is crucial, but surprisingly, only a small percentage of outdoor workers, such as construction workers, consistently apply it. Workers should apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB radiation. Paying particular attention to the Sun Protection Factor (SPF), which indicates the duration of protection against UVB rays. SPF 30 sunscreen offers protection 30 times longer than unprotected skin. Properly applied SPF 30 filters out 98% of UVB radiation. Sunscreen should be readily available and reapplied every two hours.
Employers should foster open discussions about the importance of sunscreen, the seriousness of skin cancer and motivate employees to examine their skin regularly. Any unusual growth, sore, or patch should be checked by a dermatologist promptly. Employers can promote regular self-examinations to check for the following common irregularities:
- New, expanding, or changing growths, spots, or bumps on the skin
- Persistent sores that bleed or fail to heal after several weeks
- Rough or scaly red patches that may crust or bleed
- Wart-like growths
- Pale, wax-like, pearly nodules
- Moles (or other skin spots) that are new or undergo changes in size, shape, or color
- Moles with irregular shapes, borders, or areas displaying various colors
Early detection through these simple practices can be pivotal in identifying and addressing potential skin diseases at an early stage, promoting employee well-being and health.
Strategizing with the Sun in Mind
While avoiding the sun entirely may not always be possible, employers can plan outdoor work during times when sunlight is less intense. UV rays are at their strongest, peaking between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm, right in the middle of the workday. Even on cloudy days, up to 80% of the sun’s harmful UV rays can penetrate clouds, posing a constant risk to your workers’ skin. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends scheduling work during the early morning or late afternoon when sun exposure is lower.
As the summer sun blazes on, employers must not overlook the potential dangers it poses to their outdoor workforce. By understanding the risks of UV rays, identifying high sun exposure roles, providing protective measures, strategizing workflows, and empowering employees with sun safety training, employers can ensure the well-being of their workers. Let’s make this July, Ultraviolet Safety Month, a catalyst for fostering a safer and healthier outdoor work environment.