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Skin cancer and outdoor work

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  • Make sure there is support from the whole team, including approval from management and buy-in from workers.
  • Set up a system for communication and consultation throughout the process of developing the UV protection program – this can be anything from a formal survey to a group discussion at toolbox meeting. In some cases, you might also need to keep stakeholders outside of your organisation informed, such as principal contractors or business partners.
  • Depending on the size of the organisation or business, it may be useful to form a working group with representatives from different departments or work areas—rather than creating extra work, where appropriate add UV to the agenda of regular existing meetings, such as a Work Health and Safety committee meeting.
  • In the same way, the UV Protection Program does not have to be an additional or separate activity. Integrate it into an existing health and safety program, workplace code of conduct or procedure—determine what will be the most effective and efficient approach for your workplace.
  • Remember that change can take time—if your implementing a lot of changes, consider a stepwise approach to allow workers to get used to the changes gradually. This will also give you time to problem solve any issues as they arise.
  • Where you meet resistance from workers, it’s important to refer them to the relevant documentation (e.g. policy) and remind them that working safely is a condition of employment and a legal obligation, under the WHS Act.

Download Skin Cancer and Outdoor Work – a comprehensive work health and safety guide on identifying and managing UV radiation as a workplace hazard. Includes a sample UV policy, risk assessment template and toolbox resources. 

  • Why is UV as a workplace hazard?

UV radiation is a class 1 carcinogen—this means that it is known to causes cancer in humans. Other class 1 carcinogen include asbestos and tobacco and though many workers are aware of the risk of these, less are aware that UV radiation is also in the same carcinogen class. Overexposure to UV radiation is known to cause around 95 per cent of melanoma skin cancers and 99 per cent of non-melanoma skin cancers.

Most times we’re outside during daylight hours (and regardless of the weather), we are exposed to UV radiation from the sun. The intensity of the UV we are exposed to and the length of time we are exposed to it, result in our UV dose for that day. The total amount of UV that we are exposed to over our lifetime also adds up, contributing to our risk of developing skin cancer. Since there is a lag time between UV exposure and skin cancer developing, it can be easy to become complacent about UV protection or think that you aren’t at risk, but even small amounts of UV exposure can cause damage to unprotected eyes and skin.

If you work outdoors or are responsible for people who work outdoors, there is a risk of from UV-induced skin damage. Under Work Health and Safety (WHS) legislation you must manage this hazard appropriately to protect yourself and others.

  • Why do outdoor workers need sun protection year-round?

A UV Index of 3 is high enough to damage unprotected skin and eyes. However, because UV-induced skin damage is cumulative, it is recommended that outdoor workers use sun protection year-round, regardless on the UV Index. It’s not only the intensity of the sun’s rays (UV Index) that you are exposed to but also the length of time you are exposed for and the pattern of exposure—this may be an ongoing episode or via a series of shorter episodes which add up over the day. It‘s these factors together that determine the UV dose that you receive on any day.

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) monitors and reports UV in doses as a way to quantify UV exposure for WHS purposes. A standard measure of UV is known as a Standard Erythemal Dose (SED). The length of time is takes to receive 1 SED depends on UV levels, therefore the higher the UV Index, the quicker you’ll receive a SED (or the less time you need to be outside). Exposure to 1 SED per day is considered safe for most people and when the UV Index is extreme, 2 SEDs are enough for people with pale skin to burn. UV protection is recommended if anticipating exposure to one or more SEDs on any day. Any SEDs received, and the accompanying skin damage, are cumulative and build up over the years, increasing the risk of skin cancer.

During a typical summer’s day in Adelaide, outdoor workers can receive up to 70 SEDs, substantially more doses than the safe exposure limit (see figure 1). Comparing a winter’s day (working similar hours) outdoor workers can still be exposed to as much as 10 SEDs (see figure 2), again still exceeding safe levels of exposure. Visit arpansa.gov.au to view hourly and daily accumulated UV Dose Reports, expressed as SEDs for all capital cities in Australia.

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

For outdoor workers, even on days with a low UV Index (intensity) because of the length of time you are exposed to UV, whether all at once or intermittently throughout the day, sun protection is needed to prevent permanent damage to your skin and eyes.

  • What is reasonably practicable in ensuring health and safety relating to UV protection in the workplace?

Under the WHS Act, a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) has a duty of care to ensure workers are not exposed to risks to their health and safety as a result of work activities and must identify all foreseeable hazards, assess their risks and implement reasonably practicable control measures.

To determine what is ‘reasonably practicable,’ the PCBU must take into account and weigh up all relevant matters including:

a) the likelihood of exposure to solar UV radiation
–  Outdoor workers receive up to 10 times more UV exposure than indoor workers yearly.

b) the degree of harm that that might result from exposure to solar UV radiation
–  Overexposure to UV causes skin cancer, including melanoma.
–  It’s estimated that two in three Australians will develop some form of skin cancer before the age of 70. Those with higher exposure levels are at higher risk.
–  Every year around 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer.
–  In Australia, it is estimated that around 200 melanomas and 34,000 other skin cancers per year are caused by occupational exposure.
–  The amount of UV exposure to cause skin cancer is unknown and differs between individuals.

c) what the PCBU knows or ought reasonably to know, about—
i.  the hazard: UV radiation exposure or risk: skin damage, skin cancer (and potentially death)
ii. ways of eliminating exposure to UV radiation or minimizing the risk of skin damage
– Implementing a comprehensive sun protection program, including a range of protective measures, can help prevent sun-related injuries and reduce the suffering and costs associated with skin cancer.

d) the availability and suitability of ways to eliminate exposure to solar UV radiation or minimise the risk of skin damage, and or skin cancer becoming fatal if it were to occur.
–  Move stationary tasks indoors or under shelter, rotate workers, schedule tasks earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon when UV levels are lower.
–  Provide portable shade, sun protective clothing, sunscreen, hats and sunglasses to workers—and use in combination.
–  Educate workers and monitor the use of control measures.
–  Encourage workers to undertaken regular self-examination of their skin.

e) after assessing the extent of the risk and the available ways of eliminating or minimising the risk, the cost associated with available ways of eliminating or minimising the risk, including whether the cost is grossly disproportionate to the risk.
–  Cost of implementing control measures, including but not limited: to providing workers with PPE, the impact of changing work schedules or task rotation, cost of shade provision, window tinting or modifying surfaces, cost of awareness or education initiatives, etc.
–  Determine whether these costs outweigh the costs associated with time off work, loss of productivity, skin cancer morbidity and mortality.

Ultimately it is the PCBU’s decision (determined in consultation with their workers) whether or not they conclude skin cancer is a significant foreseeable risk and which control measures are practicable for their situation. However, they must be able to show evidence that a risk assessment process has been used to justify their decision. Workers also have a responsibility for their own safety and health and are required to follow policies and procedures, as directed.

Whether you’re self-employed or manage a number of workers, sun protection is a smart investment in the future of your workplace and the health of your workforce.

Undertake a periodic risk assessment to determine the if there is a risk of exposure to UV radiation at your workplace and if so, use the hierarchy of risk control to identify suitable control measures that eliminate or minimise the risk as far as reasonably practicable.

Use a risk assessment process to identify:

  •  employees that are likely to be exposed to UV radiation, including identifying when and where these situations occur—consider things like how many workers are at risk and the time of day and time of year that work is performed.
  • factors that may impact of the work environment—things like reflective surfaces, the availability and accessibility of shade can all have an impact.
  • control measures that are already in place, including whether they are effective or need improving—e.g. whether current uniform provides UV protection, whether sunscreen and eye protection are worn by workers, etc.

Check whether any workers could be suffering from photosensitivity—this is where eyes and skin become abnormally sensitive to UV radiation, meaning the skin can burn more easily, increasing the risk of skin cancer. Photosensitivity can be caused by ingesting, inhaling or coming into skin contact with a range of substances including some industrial chemicals, plants and medication. More information on substances which cause photosensitivity can be found on page 7 of the ‘Guide on exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation’ available from Safe Work Australia www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au.

Download the risk assessment worksheet to assess if there is a risk of hazardous levels of exposure to UV radiation associated with performing tasks in your workplace.

Documentation, such as a UV protection policy, is a way to record in writing why and how the risk of UV radiation is to be managed by your workplace. Decide what type of document (e.g.: policy, procedure or code of conduct) will best suit your workplace and whether a new one needs to be developed or if an existing one can be updated to include UV radiation.

It should include the following key elements:

  • description of the hazard and the key reasons for the policy
  • details on UV protection control measures to action
  • details of education and training requirements
  • an outline of who is responsible for implementation and monitoring
  • procedures for reporting UV-related injuries and for managing non-compliance
  • details of review processes

Download the sample UV protection policy to help you get started.

Workplaces should eliminate or reduce exposure to UV radiation using the hierarchy of control and implement a risk management process. Workers should be involved in the risk assessment process and identifying appropriate control measures in the context of your workplace. Training workers on occupational hazards and the policies in place to manage them is also a legal work health and safety requirement. Failing to address occupational hazards can leave workplaces liable, if injury or disease were to occur.

Ultimately, you should aim to implement a range of control measures that effectively reduce the amount of time workers spend in the sun and provide maximum protection, by providing and maintaining equipment needed to protect workers. Consider introducing a transition phase or a staged approach if there are lots of new controls being implemented.

Below is a summary of control measures to eliminate or minimise the risk of UV radiation exposure in the workplace.

Elimination: remove the UV hazard to a worker

Work indoors
–  where possible, move tasks indoors to remove the UV hazard to a worker.
Rotate workers
–  rotate jobs between workers if some activities can be done in shaded areas/ indoors, so no one worker is outdoors for extended periods.

Engineering controls: modify the environment to reduce the UV hazard to a worker

Shade
–  where possible, shade should be provided either as permanent structures or as portable structures, including canopies and screens. If it is not possible to work in a shaded area, shade should be provided during breaks. Due to indirect solar UVR shade should not be the only control.
Reflective surfaces
–  where possible, change, modify or avoid reflective surfaces. Soft or rough surfaces reflect less UVR and are safer than hard or smooth surfaces. Painting surfaces a less reflective colour (dark colours) also helps to reduce reflective UVR.
Window tinting
–  tinted windows help to reduce the amount of solar UVR entering a vehicle or plant.

Administrative controls: protect workers through modifying work routines and providing training and education

Scheduling
–  schedule work routines so outdoor tasks are done early in the morning or later in the afternoon when UV levels are lower.
Training and education
–  educate workers about working safely in the sun and provide training where applicable.
UV Index
–          announce or display the daily UV Index in a common area or encourage workers to use the SunSmart app via their smartphones.
Early detection of skin cancer
–          all workers should be provided with information on why and how to check their skin and reminded to do so regularly. High-risk workers should be encouraged consult their GP.

Personal protective equipment: ensure outdoor workers are protected in as many ways as possible

*Workplaces that don’t provide PPE or a uniform should inform workers of tax deductions they are eligible for and where suitable items can be purchased from.
Sun protective work clothing 
–  Wear clothing that covers as much skin as possible. Sun protective work clothing includes long-sleeved shirt with a collar and long pants.
The ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of the material should be as high as possible (50+). The colour, closeness of weave and condition of the clothes can affect their ability to protect from UVR. Cotton, polyester and linen is best, as they are lightweight and allow sweat to evaporate.
–  Protective clothing should be your first line of defence—research suggests that clothing rather than sunscreen is more effective at protecting the body, arms and legs from UV radiation. Sunscreen is difficult to reapply in dusty or dirty conditions and often people forget to reapply. It is also more difficult to ensure that workers are using it effectively by applying enough sunscreen. Sunscreen should still be applied to any remaining exposed skin such as the face, neck and ears and the hands if gloves aren’t worn.
Sun protective hats
–  Wear broad brimmed hats or one that shades the head, face, ears and neck. The brim should be at least 7.5cm (6cm for bucket hats).
Legionnaire hats are also suitable. Baseball caps do not provide good sun protection and are not recommended.
The UPF of the fabric should be as high as possible (50+).
Use hat/brim attachments where helmets or hard hats are a requirement.
Sunglasses
–  Wear close-fitting, wrap-around sunglasses that provide good UV protection.
Ensure sunglasses meet Australian Standards (AS/NZS 1067) or safety glasses marked with an “O” for outdoor use.
Different manufacturers will indicate the level of protection in different ways, choose a product with a lens category of at least two, an EPF of 9 or 10 or labelled UV 400.
Sunscreen
–  Apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to any remaining exposed skin, 20 minutes prior to going outside, reapplying at least every two hours.
Choose a broad spectrum water-resistant formula. No sunscreen offers 100 per cent protection and should be used in combination with other PPE.
An SPF 30 or higher lip balm should also be used. Ensure sunscreen is stored below 30°C and used within the expiry date.

For more information on clothing, hats, sunglasses and sunscreen, see How should I protect my skin?

Workplaces are ideal settings to encourage positive behaviours through education that can in turn influence worker’s health and well-being, productivity and workplace culture. Keep your workers in the loop—explain why these sun protection measures are necessary to protect their health. When people understand why they’re in place or why changes need to be made, they’re more likely to comply. Once new control measures have been put in place, reassess the risk to see if the actions you’ve taken have made a difference and encourage workers to provide feedback on their experience.

You can keep workers informed about sun protection and skin cancer early detection by providing:

1.  Information on sun protection and why it is needed

  • Displaying posters can be a great visual prompt for workers to engage in UV protection behaviours such as reapplying sunscreen every two hours or taking breaks in shaded areas.
  • Make information available in various places such as your intranet, in newsletters or bulletins and have brochures for the team to take home—our early detection resources are great way to remind about workers about checking their skin.
  • It’s also important to remind workers verbally about protecting their skin while on the job.
  • For more comprehensive education, book one of our education sessions for your outdoor team or an information session for your whole organisation.

2.  Instructions for use of equipment including PPE and providing training as required

  • Inform workers of what PPE is available to them (and where to find it) and demonstrate the appropriate way to use it.
  • For items your workplace doesn’t supply, make sure workers know they may be eligible for tax deductions on purchases of sun protective clothing, hats, sunglasses and sunscreen. Talk to a tax advisor or visit ato.gov.au for more information.
  • Consult with your workers about the PPE provided, for example get their feedback on the wearability of sun protective clothing, is the fabric light weight, does it breathe, etc? When workers have input on the types of PPE supplied, they’re more likely to use it, and use it properly.

3.  Supervision to ensure safety and compliance

  • Ensure you have system in place for supervising staff and ensuring they are complying with instructions.
  • Role modelling UV protection behaviours is also important to ensure compliance.

4.  Reminders to encourage regular self-examination

  • Some workplaces offer skin checks to employees, which can be a great initiative but is only part of the early detection puzzle and isn’t feasible for all workplaces. (In fact, there is insufficient evidence to suggest than these types of checks reduce skin cancer mortality).
  • Regardless of whether you provide this service or not, the best thing you can to is remind your workers about the importance of early detection and encourage them all to check their own skin regularly.
  • Where practicable you may wish to consider flexible arrangements for workers to take time off to get spots checked by a health professional—remember early detection of skin cancer saves lives and early treatment means less time off the tools in the long run.

Download the UV Safety Toolbox Talk  to update your team or test their current knowledge with the UV as a Workplace Hazard Quiz.

Once the program is in place, you’ll need to monitor it periodically and review the success of your UV protection program. This may include:

  • Asking staff for comments, concerns or difficulties experienced with the new policy and/or control measures.
  • Repeating the risk assessment to provide information on changes in UV risk levels and success of UV protection control measures.
  • Examining results of monitoring processes to identify behaviour change in regard to UV protection and the extent of compliance with control measures.
  • Repeating worker surveys to identify changes in attitudes and awareness of the issue.

Use the risk assessment worksheet to reassess levels of exposure to UV radiation and determine the success of the control measures implemented.

Cancer Council SA can offer tailored support to help you feel more confident to address UV radiation hazards and develop a UV protection program for your workplace, through individual meetings, small group workshops or presenting to larger working groups and forums.

Contact us at sunsmart@cancersa.org.au or phone 08 8291 4269.


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This webpage was last reviewed and updated in January 2020.