Sun protection in the workplace: you can’t afford not to

AUSTRALIA has some of the highest levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation in the world. Too much UV can cause sunburn, premature ageing, eye damage and skin damage leading to skin cancer. 

At least two in every three Australians will develop skin cancer before the age of 70.  If you’re an outdoor worker, the likelihood of developing skin cancer is even greater. 

Outdoor workers receive five to 10 times more UV exposure than their indoor colleagues, putting them at the top of the risk list. Estimates show around 200 melanomas and 34,000 non-melanoma skin cancers are caused from occupational exposures.  

UV is often forgotten as a workplace risk, especially when it can get lost in a long list of other workplace risks, such as working with machinery and in the heat. However, with several legal cases settled in favour of workers with occupational skin cancer and sun exposure recorded as one of the most common causes of compensated cancer claims, when it comes to the workplace, sun protection matters.

SunSmart recommends that all workplaces with both outdoor and indoor workers develop a UV protection program to protect workers from the risk of UV radiation. Workplaces can play a crucial role in protecting workers through the provision of protective clothing, equipment and training, reviewing scheduling of work where appropriate and monitoring compliance – plus its part of their legislative OHS requirements. 

Workplace facilities and amenities will become a priority of the National Code of Practice when the Model Work Health and Safety Act is introduced in January 2012. Workplaces that have planned and are managing UV as a workplace risk will be well placed to be able to respond to the code quickly. 

“Where you have a lot of workers outdoors when the UV hits dangerous levels the most obvious thing to do is to try to reduce their UV exposure by rescheduling outdoor jobs undercover or early in the morning and late afternoon,” said SunSmart manager, Sue Heward.

“We know that this is not always practical and possible so workplaces should be looking at sharing outdoor tasks, making use of shade and the provision of personal protective clothing- long sleeved, collared shirts, broad brimmed hats, sunglasses; along with regularly applying SPF 30+ sunscreen on the remaining skin that is still exposed.” 

As with any change process, actions take time, consultation, clear communication between head offices and satellite sites, support and commitment from all levels of the organisation as well as an allocation of resources. Where employees have a low level of awareness of the risks of UV and UV protection policies are not enforced, this often translates to poor results when trying to reduce workplace UV overexposure.

State and territory Cancer Councils offer a range of information on working safely in the sun, and support for workplaces and managers. For example, in Victoria, SunSmart has a range of workplace education and in-service training available for Victorian workplaces. 

Workplaces can also access the free Sunsmart UV Alert widget and add it to their website homepage. The widget shows the daily weather, temperature and UV level specific to the site’s location including details about the times sun protection is required each day. A free SunSmart app for iPhones that provides the same functions is available from the iTunes store.

Through a combination of guidelines and policy, education and workplace resources, the risk of skin cancer in the workplace can be substantially reduced.