For many workers, being free from the confines of an office and working outdoors, particularly in warm weather, is a welcome perk of certain jobs in the construction, leisure, entertainment, agriculture, sports and horticulture industries.
However, the warm summer months pose certain risks to outdoor workers, which need to be adequately managed, just like any other health and safety risk.
Outdoor working — the risks
Too much exposure to sunlight can result in sunburn. Damage from sunburn can also have serious long-term effects, and frequent exposure to ultraviolet radiation for long periods of time increases the risk of developing skin cancer. Statistically, outdoor workers have higher risks of skin cancer than other workers due to longer periods of exposure and they are considered a high risk group in this regard.
Skin cancer and sunburn are not the only risks to consider — there is also dehydration and heat stress, for example, both of which can be fatal. The key is to have in place a comprehensive outdoor working policy, able to cater for each individual outdoor worker and the range of potential risks.
Work-related skin cancer — the statistics
In April 2015, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) published new research offering a comprehensive picture of the skin cancer burden on those working outdoors in industries as diverse as construction, agriculture and leisure and entertainment.
The, research conducted by Imperial College London, led IOSH to highlight the following key findings.
- Malignant melanoma kills nearly 50 people each year in the UK because of exposure to solar radiation at work, with 240 new cases being registered.
- Melanoma is the most common cause of cancer among young adults.
- As many as five people a day on average in the UK are being diagnosed with a form of skin cancer contracted at work.
- In the UK, it is estimated that 5.5 million people have been exposed to solar radiation through their work.
A separate study, conducted by the University of Nottingham, examined work attitudes to sun safety in the construction sector, and warned of a “macho culture” in some parts of the industry as well as misconceptions about the threat of ultraviolet radiation in climates like the UK’s. For example, the researchers said, cloud cover does not completely protect against solar radiation, contrary to what some people think.
The study found that two-thirds of construction workers outside for an average of nearly seven hours a day thought they were not at risk from ultraviolet radiation or were unsure if they were. In addition, more than half (59%) of those questioned by researchers reported having sunburn — a major contributor to skin cancer — at least once in the last year.
Formulating a sun protection policy
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says that ultraviolet radiation should be considered an occupational hazard for people who work outdoors.
The HSE advises employers to:
- Include sun protection advice in routine health and safety training, informing workers that a tan is not healthy.
- Encourage workers to keep covered up during the summer months — especially around midday.
- Encourage workers to use sunscreen of at least sun protection factor (SPF) 15.
- Encourage workers to take their breaks in the shade, if possible.
- Consider scheduling work to minimise exposure.
- Keep workers informed about the dangers of sun exposure.
- Encourage workers to check their skin regularly for unusual spots or moles that change and to seek prompt medical advice promptly if concerned.
Dehydration and heat stress
Symptoms of dehydration in outdoor workers might include indicators such as fatigue, poor concentration, fainting or headaches. In the worst-case scenario however, dehydration and heat stress can kill.
The role of personal protective equipment is a particular factor to consider in relation to heat stress. On a hot day, someone wearing protective clothing and performing heavy work in hot and humid conditions could be at increased risk of heat stress. Ultimately, if the body is gaining more heat than it can lose, the deep body temperature will continue to rise. Eventually it reaches a point when the body’s control mechanism itself starts to fail.
The HSE says that when carrying out a heat stress risk assessment, the major factors to consider are:
- The work rate, since the harder someone works, the greater the body heat generated.
- The working climate, including air temperature, humidity, air movement and heat sources.
- Worker clothing and respiratory protective equipment which may impair the efficiency of sweating and other means of temperature regulation.
- The worker’s age, build and medical factors, which may affect an individual’s tolerance.
The HSE warns that dehydration can seriously affect an employee's ability to function safely when under thermal stress. However, the effects of dehydration can be minimised in heat stress situations by encouraging employees to frequently drink cool water to compensate for losses due to sweating. Water points and rest areas, the safety watchdog says, should be sited in the shade.
Warm sunny weather can be a pleasant change from the chill and rains of winter. With effective health and safety planning, outdoor workers can also enjoy a pleasant and safe summer.
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