Whilst the weather may be doing its level best to convince us otherwise at the moment, it is summer, so outdoor workers will be faced with hot, sunny days at some point over the next few months. Whilst careful exposure to the sun’s rays will help your body produce Vitamin D, too much exposure can cause sunburn and, potentially, skin cancer. Therefore employers whose staff are exposed to the sun have an obligation to remind employees about the impact the sun can have on them and how they can protect themselves.
Risks on hot, sunny days are twofold: trying to stay cool in the heat, and the harmful effects of the sun’s rays. Frequent exposure to damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays (an invisible form of radiation emitted by the sun) causes sun damage. It is believed that UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and are the major source of early ageing and skin cancer, and that UVB rays primarily access the surface of the skin and are the key source of sunburns. Because we are exposed to these rays every day, regardless of whether there is cloud coverage or not, it is recommended that those who work outside use sunscreen products on a daily basis year-round.
Anyone can get skin cancer, but people with fair skin and light eye colour tend to be at higher risk than others. Cancer Research UK provides a list of risk factors for getting skin cancer, which can be found at http://www.sunsmart.org.uk/skin-cancer-facts/whoisatrisk/. Checking the UV index lets you know just how strong the sun’s rays are on a particular day so employers can warn staff. The Met Office offers a national UV index at http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/weather/uk/uk_forecast_uv.html, which can be searched by postcode.
It is common for outdoor workers, particularly in the construction field, to neglect any type of sun protection, as their attention is focused on industry-specific hazards and other crucial aspects such as personal safety and the safety of others. In addition, sunscreen products may have a less than positive reputation as being non-absorbent and greasy which may cause unrelated difficulties in the workplace. However, sunscreen products have been greatly improved in recent years, and innovations such as fast-absorbing, non-greasy products make application much quicker and easier. Employers should, where possible, encourage outdoor workers to stay in the shade between 11am and 3pm but must also encourage workers to apply sunscreen on all uncovered areas including behind the ears, the backs of hands, the face and neck. Sunscreens will not completely block all of the sun’s harmful rays so outdoor workers must also have access to appropriate sun protection clothing (e.g. sun flaps attached to hardhats, loose-fitting cotton long-sleeved workwear). Eyes should also be protected with sunglasses that block UV rays to prevent cataracts and other eye problems caused by the sun’s rays.
Employers who feel that they require guidance on their responsibilities towards outdoor workers can call the Health for Work Adviceline (0800 0 77 88 44) to find out how to protect staff from the long-term and short-term effects of exposure to the sun – www.health4work.nhs.uk.