People who work outdoors in warm weather have a greater risk of developing skin cancer, as they are exposed to the sun for long periods of time. They are also at risk of overheating, heat stress and heat exhaustion.
Employers have a responsibility as part of The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to assess the risks to the health of their workforce, and this includes the risks from both UV radiation and heat. Anyone who works outdoors for prolonged periods of time needs to be provided with the necessary protection, whether they’re construction workers, gardeners, public service personnel or outdoor activity workers.
The risks of exposure to UV
According to research from Imperial College London, working in the sun could lead to one death and around five new cases of melanoma skin cancer a week in the UK. As part of the British Journal of Cancer, researchers estimated that each year there are 48 deaths and 241 cases of melanoma skin cancer in the UK that’s come as a result of overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays at work. Exposure to harmful UV rays with inadequate protection on a regular basis can cause serious damage to both the skin and eyes and also lead to overheating and dehydration. Even when mild reddening of the skin occurs, this is an early sign of damage. In the long term, overexposure speeds up the ageing process of the skin and increases the likelihood of developing skin cancer.
The risks of overheating
What’s known as ‘heat stress’ can occur when the body’s means of controlling its internal temperature begins to fail. Several factors can contribute to this state, including air temperature, work rate, humidity, and clothing worn. Whilst it’s impossible to control the weather outside, choosing the right protective clothing can make all the difference. If unsuitable clothing is worn, sweat evaporation can be restricted and if an insufficient amount of heat is lost, the core body temperature rises and the body eventually gets more heat than it can lose. Regular exposure to this uncomfortable state can result in the body’s control mechanisms failing.
The effects of this heat stress are numerous and include an inability to concentrate, fainting, muscle cramps, heat rash, heat stroke, heat exhaustion and severe thirst. Needless to say, these will all heavily impact a worker’s ability to continue with their task.
In hot weather conditions, everyone is at risk, hence the best form of action is to carry out a risk assessment which addresses clothing, work rate, and respiratory protective equipment, among other important factors. HSE has created this helpful heat stress checklist to follow when carrying out your risk assessment. It is also advised to identify employees who are most at risk in these difficult conditions, for example, those with any illnesses or conditions which increase the likelihood of heat stress and make sure their health is monitored. In these cases, you may also require guidance from an occupational health professional.
Clothing and PPE for hot weather
Whilst designed to protect workers against hazards at the workplace, PPE can expose employees to heat stress and reduce the body’s ability to evaporate sweat, as well as not providing adequate protection against harmful UV. However, removing these protective measures exposes them to the hazard that it was designed to protect them from. This makes choosing PPE and workwear that incorporates both appropriate breathable fabrics and UV protection crucial.
There are a number of different clothing items that can be considered, including hats, shirts, trousers and hi-vis. Here at WISE Worksafe, we have a selection of garments with UV protection, including Craghoppers shirts and trousers that incorporate permanent sun protective technology. The SolarShield fabric provides UPF50+ protection from ultraviolet, and everything from the tight fabric weave, type of yarns used and colours have been designed to offer the best protection while working outdoors.
The comfort of your workers is very important to both their health and their productivity. Being too warm or sunburnt will increase downtime, so choosing protective clothing with the impact of the weather in mind is vital. If workers are too hot they may be tempted to take protective garments off or opt for regular clothing that does not protect them against the hazards in their working environment. With appropriate garments, they will be able to protect themselves against workplace hazards and the impact of the sun simultaneously.
With the current heatwave severely impacting workforces throughout Britain, the BBC shared experiences from 10 UK workers about what it's like to wear uniform in hot weather.
If workers are regularly working in bright sunlight, they will also need to protect their eyes from UV damage. In a non-hazardous environment, sunglasses with UV protection are normally sufficient. However, when other occupational risks to the eyes exist which require eye protection to be worn, it’s important to choose the right safety eyewear.
Where safety spectacles or goggles need to be worn outdoors, it’s strongly recommended to opt for ones with UV protection. The Betafit Montana grey lens spectacles have a smoke tinted lens for anti-glare with UV400 sun protection. The UV400 mark indicates that a product is optimised to prevent exposure to both UVA and UVB radiation. This is capable of blocking light rays as small as 400 nanometres, which means that anywhere from 99 to 100% of the sun’s harmful radiation is kept away from the eyes.
The importance of sunscreen
Encouraging your employees to wear sunscreen daily is highly important, particularly during a heatwave. When you are responsible for outdoor workers in hot weather, you should provide the sunscreen and encourage regular application. In terms of SPF (sun protection factor), the Skin Cancer Foundation explains that SPF 15 filters out approximately 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 keeps out 97% and SPF 50 filters 98%. For those with light-sensitive skin or a history of skin cancer, these slight differences in percentage could make all the difference. Whilst no sunscreen can block 100% of UV rays, it’s best to provide as much protection as possible.
Further ways to protect workers
Include sun protection advice in health and safety training
Encourage them to keep their tops on even in very hot conditions
Provide shade and encourage workers to stay in it whenever possible, and during breaks/lunch time
Encourage drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration
Monitor employee health
Schedule work at cooler times of the day
Rotate staff out of the sun on a frequent basis
Encourage workers to check their skin for newly formed moles or skin discolouration
The benefits to an employer
By addressing the potential risks of working outdoors in hot weather conditions, you will see fewer staff absences from sunburn and heat stress or exhaustion. You will have a more comfortable, happy, healthy and well-informed workforce, and you will be doing your part to reduce their risk of developing skin cancer.
For more information on the risks of working in the sun, check out the following resources: