Outdoor workers have more than triple the incidence rates of skin cancer compared to indoor workers. Construction workers, in particular, are at high risk. If you work outdoors, this might sound like an inevitable risk that you have to accept, but it doesn’t have to be. Being knowledgeable and taking appropriate precautions can help reduce your risk, not just from skin cancer, but other risks associated with sun exposure.
Occupational sun exposure is on a fundamentally different level of risk from that of recreational or incidental exposure. Many people think of vacations at the beach and surfing when they think of sun exposure and skin cancer, not the guys in construction gear. However, this is a misperception as even the most avid surfers aren’t clocking 40 hours at the beach. The risk of skin cancer is strongly correlated to total exposure time, so this is a big deal. Working full-time is a third of one’s day and half of one’s waking hours. Statistically, outdoor workers have incidences of skin cancer more than 3 times that of indoor workers. Sun exposure risks, both the acute kind and the long-term risks of skin cancer, should be viewed as a serious occupational hazard and treated as such.
One emergency that isn’t talked about as often as it should is heat exhaustion and related conditions. The risks of sun exposure aren’t just about skin cancer and wrinkles. Heat exhaustion is a potential hazard for anyone. Outdoor workers in particular need to be aware of the danger. Our internal temperature is very precisely regulated and is set at about 37 degrees Celsius by either sweating or shivering. Heat exhaustion is the first sign that the heat from the environment is overwhelming the body’s ability to regulate its temperature.
When this occurs, if it isn’t dealt with properly, it can lead to an emergency. Several environmental factors can increase the risk of heat exhaustion, such as high temperature (particularly if it’s higher than 37 degrees), high humidity, and prolonged exposure to direct or reflected sunlight. Individual factors matter as well – their level of exertion, hydration levels, as well as conditioning, and overall health of the individual. Other factors include the type of clothing that the individual wears. Outdoor workers and managers should be aware of the early warning signs of heat exhaustion.
Early symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- Pale, clammy skin
- An intense sense of thirst
- Excessive sweating
- Weakness and fatigue, shallow breathing
- Tingling or numbing sensation
- Headache and nausea
- Muscle cramps
If continually exposed without treatment, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, which will require emergency treatment. It’s important to recognize some of these symptoms early while before the situation escalates. If you notice these symptoms in yourself or someone else, move them to a cool environment, drink cool water, rehydrate, and rest.
Inevitably, outdoor workers will be more exposed to the sun than indoor workers, and the effect will be much larger than any recreational and lifestyle factors. A British Journal of Cancer study has shown that construction workers and agricultural workers are the most at-risk population for skin cancers. This should come as no surprise, given that outdoor workers are exposed to the sun for 33% more of their lives. Unfortunately, this risk is often neglected because outdoor workers are typically also exposed to risks that are more immediate.
Reducing Your Sun Exposure
Clothing is going to be the first line of defense. Longer sleeves are better, as are closely woven shirts. Look for clothing with a high UPF rating. In practice, however, it’s often a trade-off with comfort and practicality. Hats and sunglasses will also help protect you from the sun.
Sunscreens are a practical and important part of sun protection for everyone but absolutely critical for outdoor workers. It doesn’t interfere with your work and isn’t discomforting.
The face, neck, and ears are the typical areas that are exposed, and the scalp areas aren’t covered by hair. Sunscreen will need to be reapplied throughout the day. Using water-resistant sunscreen will also help to reduce loss through sweat.
Part of outside work is that it is, in fact, work. We can’t always choose to stay in the shade, but there are many instances where you do have this choice. On your lunch and breaks, stay in the shade – and if you’re a site manager, have a resting spot that is covered. In many cases, it only takes a small bit of awareness to control the amount of shade you have.
Heat-related Illness via HealthLinkBC
Heat stress via WorkSafeBC