28 April 2018
Saturday, 28 April is World Day for Safety and Health at Work and Worker’s Memorial Day—a day for promoting health and safety in the workplace, focusing on preventing future work-related deaths, injuries and illnesses and a day to remember those that have passed away from a work-related injury or illness. This year, Safe Work Australia wants to highlight the importance of building safe and healthy workplaces for young workers and future generations. Safety at work has a direct impact on the things we all value outside of work and it’s everyone’s responsibility to be safe and ensure we arrive home at the end of our day.
UV radiation is an occupational hazard, particularly for those who spend most or all of their working day outdoors. We often forget the importance of sun protection because we can’t see or feel UV radiation. Sunburn may lead to some funny looking tan lines, but the damage it causes to our skin and the potential for skin cancer is far from a joke. Regardless of whether you rarely burn or go from ‘ghostly white’ to ‘lobster red’—UV radiation is still causing damage to unprotected eyes and skin. Contrary to popular belief, tanning is not a sign of good health; it’s a sign your skin cells are in trauma. Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Despite being an almost entirely preventable disease, at least two in every three Australians will develop skin cancer by the age of 70.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has identified UV radiation as a class 1 carcinogen to humans—in the same league as asbestos, arsenic and lead. We protect ourselves from exposure to these carcinogens, so why not the same for UV radiation? Mistakenly, some people tend to rely on heat or the weather as a prompt to cover up, put on a hat or sunscreen. However, we know that it is UV radiation that causes damage which can lead to skin cancer. Even on a windy, cool or cloudy day we can still be exposed to high levels of UV radiation, especially during summer, autumn and spring in Australia.
When the UV is 3 and above it’s important to take precautions and
- Slip on sun protective clothing,
- Slop on SPF30 or higher broad spectrum sunscreen,
- Slap on a shady hat that protects the face, neck and ears,
- Seek shade and
- Slide on wraparound sunglasses.
I’m sure many of you have heard these messages before but in reality most of us are just not doing them. Some of us simply forget or do one but don’t apply a combination of them, which is needed for the best protection against the sun’s harmful rays. Skin damage from UV radiation is irreversible and cumulative, meaning that once the damage is done it remains (due to changes to the cell’s DNA) and that it also builds up over time. Outdoor workers are particularly at risk, receiving between five and 10 times more UV radiation than indoor workers. Sun protection for outdoor workers is important year-round because of the almost constant UV exposure they receive.
Both employers and workers share a ‘duty of care’ to reduce workplace exposure to UV radiation. South Australian Work Health & Safety legislation says employers should take steps to reduce the health risks associated with overexposure to UV radiation. To combat this, employers can provide portable shade wherever possible, encourage workers to take breaks in shade or change schedules so work can be undertaken outside of peak UV times. But when outdoor work is unavoidable, providing protective clothing, sunscreen, sunglasses and broad-brimmed hats are key. Employees can also protect themselves by complying with workplace sun protection policies and being proactive and implementing the five SunSmart strategies—slip, slop, slap, seek and slide!
Skin cancer develops over many years of exposure to UV radiation and it may take up to 20 years for one to appear. So although the full impact of skin damage isn’t as immediate as with some other workplace incidents or injuries, the risk of skin cancer is very real. And very serious. In fact, there are more deaths from skin cancer in Australia compared with our national road toll. It’s estimated that 200 melanoma skin cancers and 34,000 non-melanoma skin cancers are caused by occupational UV exposure each year in Australia.
Some people may think skin cancer is inevitable given the Australian sun and our outdoor lifestyle culture (and there is little to do to avoid skin cancer). But it’s never too late to adopt sun protection behaviours. Even if you have already spent significant time in the sun unprotected throughout your life, making an effort to be SunSmart from this point forward will reduce your risk of skin cancer.
It’s important to become familiar with your skin, regularly check it and if you notice any new spots or moles, changes to existing spots, or anything that seems unusual head to your GP to get it assessed. Early detection is key—it’s better to have any concerns checked so treatment can begin promptly—or you can go home with peace of mind.
Workplace safety should always be front of mind so we can all return home safe every day—and UV radiation is a workplace hazard.
Community Education Project Officer
Cancer Council SA