Staying safe in the sun isn’t just a concern for the holidaymaker hitting the beach: an outdoor worker on a cloudy day is also subjected to the risks of sun exposure.
In the UK, we have this misconception that as our summers can be cloudy or rainy, there is no risk of sun exposure. This isn’t true. Even on a cloudy day, an outdoor worker is at risk because up to 80% of UV rays can travel through clouds.
According to IOSH, solar radiation is one of the top 5 causes of registered cancer cases that can be linked to occupation. On average, as many as 5 people per day are diagnosed with a form of skin cancer that has been contracted at work. Those most at risk are those who work outdoors, like in the construction industry for example.
If you work outdoors, it is important that you are aware of the risks of sun exposure and heat stress. You need to be able to recognise the signs and symptoms and crucially, be able to prevent or reduce your exposure to begin with.
If you’re an employer or supervisor of outdoor workers, then you also need to be aware of the risks, symptoms and prevention of sun exposure and heat stress. There are strategies that both supervisors and employers can implement to help reduce the health and safety risks to outdoor workers.
Sun Exposure Risks and Prevention
Sun exposure particularly affects skin and eyes. Skin that is exposed to harmful UV radiation can get sunburnt and increases the risk of developing skin cancer. Some workers may suffer sun allergy or take medication which increases their sensitivity to light, putting them at a greater risk of getting sunburnt.
To reduce exposure to sunlight and therefore reduce the risks of skin damage by UV radiation, outdoor workers should avoid exposing their skin to sunlight for prolonged periods of time. Where possible, they should wear loose fitting garments to cover and protect skin. A wide brimmed hat can also help by blocking sunlight from the face, neck and shoulders. High factor sun cream should be worn to help protect skin that cannot be covered up.
Sun exposure doesn’t just carry serious risks for skin: UV radiation can cause temporary and permanent damage to eyes. Repeated UV exposure can lead to the development of cataracts, which cause poor vision due to cloudiness in the lens of the eye. Pterygium can develop, which is a growth of tissue on the white of the eye that may extend to the lens and disrupt vision.
Photokeratitis is sunburn of the cornea and usually occurs where UV rays have been reflected from the ground (e.g. via snow or sand) back into the eye. Sight loss is usually temporary but lifelong damage to the cornea can occur. It also thought that UV exposure can contribute to degenerative eye diseases, such as macular degeneration, which cause blindness.
To help protect your eyes as an outdoor worker, you should wear wide sunglasses with a good level of UV protection. If possible, also wear a wide brimmed hat to provide more shade for your eyes.
As an employer or supervisor, you should ensure that both you and your staff are trained so that they are aware of the risks and prevention strategies for sun exposure. Regular breaks indoors or in shaded areas should be encouraged, as should the wearing of protective clothing and equipment.
You can research and provide staff updates on the UV index. This will help you and your staff know when there is a greater risk. You can also put in place precautions when scheduling work – for example, if the UV index is high or is likely to be high, avoid scheduling outdoor work during the middle of the day when the risks of exposure are greatest.
Heat Stress Risks and Prevention
It isn’t just the summer sunshine that puts outdoor workers at risk – summer temperatures should also be considered. When outdoor temperatures are high, workers are at risk of heat stress.
Heat stress can result in heat stroke, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat rash. Symptoms can range from mildly uncomfortable to a medical emergency in the case of severe heat stroke.
To reduce or prevent heat stress, outdoor workers should take regular breaks – somewhere cooler if possible. Hydration is important so you need to ensure that you drink plenty of water. Loose fitting garments should be worn that aren’t too thick or too clingy, so that they don’t contribute to over heating.
Employers and supervisors can also help protect their outdoor workers by ensuring that they have the tools to do the job with the minimum possible manual effort. Consider using multiple workers on a rotation basis to allow workers to take more frequent breaks from manual work and cool off.
Robust health and safety procedures can help prevent accidents and injuries which can be more likely in hot weather due to heat-induced problems such as sweaty palms and feeling faint.
Providing accessible drinking water can help you ensure your outdoor workers remain properly hydrated. Weather updates can help to avoid scheduling work when workers will be at the greatest risk from predicted high temperatures.
While sun exposure and heat stress can have serious short, mid and long term consequences for outdoor workers, the health risks can be greatly reduced with just a few simple measures.
Employers and supervisors should provide training and information about the risks and prevention of sun exposure and heat stress, as well as being mindful of when work is scheduled and how work is expected to be carried out.
Awareness among staff can be encouraged by regular communications – for example, by updates on the UV index or weather forecast. Employers or supervisors can also help by encouraging use of protective equipment or preventative measures – from wearing sunglasses to staying hydrated by drinking water.
Outdoor workers should take personal responsibility for their health and follow prevention measures to reduce their risk. There is a growing awareness of sun exposure as an occupational hazard that both employers and outdoor-based workers should take heed of, to ensure a happy, healthy workforce all year round.