- 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.
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.