Sun exposure is a year-round concern
Employers have an obligation to provide a safe workplace, and that extends to ensuring protection from harmful UV rays. In Australia and New Zealand, where UV exposure levels are high, that’s a year-round concern.
While most of us know that too much sun exposure can harm our health, because results of exposure are not immediately visible, it can be difficult to identify damage until it’s too late. Overexposure to solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a serious hazard for everyone, but particularly those who work outdoors — even if only for short amounts of time. In the Southern Hemisphere, the harsh summer months may now be behind us, but UV exposure is a year-long concern for employers and workers alike.
Nearly one in three workers completely unprotected
The Skin & Cancer Foundation of Australia is urging employers to wake up to sun safety, after research found an ‘unacceptable’ number of organisations are failing to meet responsibilities for protecting workers from sun exposure.
According to the research findings (published as the Skin Health Australia Report Card 2017), nearly 2 million employees working outside are not being provided with any form of sun protection by their employers and are instead being left to fend for themselves.
The report found that 8 million Australian workers work outside sometimes, mostly or all of the time. Alarmingly, 57% of these outdoor workers said their employers did not supply sunscreen, 66% did not supply protective clothing and 80% did not provide sunglasses.
Of most concern, 28% of outdoor workers were provided with no protection at all.
Skin & Cancer Foundation Associate Professor Chris Baker said the number of employees provided with little or no protection was simply unacceptable and that employers needed to wake up.
“It’s hard to know why they don’t see it as their responsibility as, clearly, there is a duty of care for employers to provide a safe workplace. While the numbers are improving, we still have a long way to go,” Baker said.
Andrew Farr, workplace law partner at PwC, said the careless attitude to sun protection was concerning and that employers are potentially opening themselves up to hefty workers compensation claims down the road.
“Given Australia’s robust work health and safety standards and laws, I would hope to see more employers realising that it’s their responsibility to ensure outdoor workers are protected from risk — and that includes sun damage and sunburn.
“Ideally, comprehensive sun protection would be provided to outdoor workers. It is important to stay compliant, minimise any liability to your business and do the right thing by your employees and their families. The technical definition of ‘comprehensive sun protection’ differs from state to state, so every employer should know their obligations to staff who work outdoors,” Farr said.
New Zealand sun safety
Across the pond, WorkSafe New Zealand is also urging employers to make smarter sun safety choices. With one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world, 2000 people per year report to the New Zealand cancer registry with melanoma – that’s around six people per day. It’s proving fatal, with over 300 New Zelanders dying each year from skin cancer.
Outdoor workers can be exposed to harmful UV radiation while working, even for as little as 10 minutes. This increases the risk of developing serious health conditions, including skin cancer. These are risks that both persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) and workers have a responsibility to manage.
WorkSafe NZ says employers need to consider what higher-level control measures they can use to keep workers out of the sun. This may include rescheduling outdoor tasks, moving work indoors or providing shade structures. If these options aren’t possible, businesses are urged to use lower-level control measures, such as provision of protective clothing, hats and eyewear, along with SPF 50+ sunscreen.
The organisation has developed a quick guide titled ‘Protecting workers from solar UV radiation’, which can be downloaded from its website — www.worksafe.govt.nz. It has also published the following information to debunk some common myths around sun safety.
Common sun safety myths
Myth 1: If you can’t see or feel the sun, you’re safe and can’t get burnt.
UV radiation can’t be seen or felt and sunlight or warmth from the sun is not the same as UV radiation. Radiation from the sun does not provide light that we can see or heat that we can feel, so your skin can be effected even when it feels cool.
Myth 2: Wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) is inconvenient and difficult to enforce.
Wearing PPE or sun protection clothing is only an inconvenience if it is not fit for purpose. Ensuring the selected PPE and sun-protective clothing is suited to the task will provide workers with a higher level of comfort and maximum protection.
Myth 3: Sunscreen provides enough protection on its own.
Sunscreen is limited in the amount of protection it can provide and shouldn’t be the only form of defence employed. Appropriate amounts must be applied correctly to exposed areas and also reapplied regularly, as both perspiration and contact with water will cause it to wear off.
Myth 4: I haven’t used sun protection before and it’s too late now to start.
Sun damage is cumulative, meaning the more we are exposed, the greater the risk. It is never too late to start protecting skin and eyes against UV radiation.
Myth 5: I’ve developed a gradual suntan without burning so I am better protected from the sun.
A suntan is an indicator that the skin is trying to protect itself from UV radiation exposure. It does this by creating more pigment, which provides a very small SPF. A suntan provides only minimal protection from future sunburn, but the cell damage caused during the process can be enough to lead to skin cancer. Overall, the risk of harm outweighs the small and short-lived benefit of a suntan.
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