Should Sun Protection be Required PPE?

Construction worker working outside on a sunny day

Office staff, plant workers stuck inside all day, or people who have never worked in construction might think it would be nice to work outside on a beautiful, clear day. But it isn’t always as sunny as it sounds. The direct sunlight these workers are exposed to during peak sun hours means that they are at a much higher risk of being affected by skin cancer, cataracts, and heat stress, among other diseases caused by sun exposure.
 
Occupational sun exposure is a serious problem for over 1.5 million outdoor workers in Canada, who are often inadequately protected. In fact, outdoor workers have a 2.5 to 3.5 times greater risk of developing skin cancer than people who work indoors. Which is why the Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA) joined forces with the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) to develop a sun safety program for workers in Canada. Their aim is to educate Canadians and prevent the rising incidence of skin cancer in the country. 
 
Their initiative needs to reach the affected workers—mostly, but not limited to, those in construction, farming, building care and maintenance, lifeguards, landscapers and postal workers. Reaching these workers is a challenge which is why it’s important for the workplace to play an active role in sun safety. 
 
Addressing the problem
 
Approximately 90 percent of skin cancers are linked to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposure, which means that the majority of skin cancers in Canada are largely preventable. You can address these issues by implementing a sun safety program and creating clear guidelines for your workers to follow. Organize a toolbox talk or two about the dangers of overexposure and the importance of reporting changes in skin, spots or moles to a doctor as soon as possible. 
 
Additionally, providing workers with relevant information on recognizing the signs of heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke or heat exhaustion could be extremely helpful and ensure a quick response to such an event. 
 
Educate your employees on what the UV index means. A rating of 3–5 on the UV index indicates moderate risk, 6–7 is high risk, 8–10 very high and 11 or more is extreme. Employees need to start paying attention when the UV Index is 3 or higher. Exposure should be minimized as much as possible between 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. between April and September (even if it’s cloudy). When the UV index is higher than 7, precautions may need to go beyond just protection and working in the shade to rescheduling the work if possible. 
 
Here’s a fun tip called the shadow rule: if your shadow is taller than you, your UV exposure is low but if your shadow is shorter than you, you’re getting higher levels of UV radiation. Encourage employees to take their breaks in the shade and if they are regularly exposed, ensure their protection and enforce their adherence to the simple few rules drafted by CDA and OCRC regarding skin and eye protection below:
 
Skin protection

  •  Use “broad spectrum” and “water-resistant” sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 on skin not covered by clothing. Apply it generously and reapply when required (when you wet your face or sweat, for example).  
  • Seek shade or bring your own (this might be tricky in some industries but utilize a tent or hang up a tarpaulin where possible). 
  • Wear clothing that covers as much skin as possible, as appropriate to the activity and weather. 
  • Cover your head, neck and ears.
  • Don’t use UV tanning equipment or deliberately try to get a suntan, and avoid getting a sunburn. 

Eye protection
 
The sun can seriously damage the eyes and the skin around the eyes.

  •  Wear sunglasses, safety glasses or prescription eyeglasses with UV-protective lenses.  
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat for added eye protection or think about adding cooling hats, sun visors or neck shades if hard hats are required.

In addition to these basic rules, think about what else you can do to protect your workers. Make sun protection part of your employees’ PPE. After all, respirators are used in workplaces which can cause workers to develop chronic lung conditions and cancers, so sun protection should be enforced to prevent diseases from sun exposure. Especially since the CDA and OCRC listed as many as 7,000 skin cancers attributed to occupational sun exposure in 2014. 
 
Providing employees with sunscreen, sunglasses and other protective tools is a small demonstration of how much you care about their health. Such a simple gesture could help you build a stronger safety culture and ensure a better adherence to sun safety rules, which are vital to prevent the rise of skin cancers among outdoor workers in Canada.