Outdoor workers need better sun protection on the job

Researchers aim to shield those who work outside from skin cancer.

Seek shade and avoid the sun in peak hours. Those are two of the common suggestions for skin cancer prevention. But what if you can’t follow that advice? Outdoor workers—in construction, landscaping and road maintenance—can’t pick and choose when they’ll be outside. And they can’t seek out shade in an open worksite. These workers are in a high-risk category for skin cancer, and researchers are starting to focus on prevention strategies for them. 

Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute Scientist Dr. Sunil Kalia, and Dr. Cheryl Peters along with other researchers have just completed a survey of outdoor workers and their skin protection behaviours. The study, the first of its kind in Canada, shows there’s a long way to go to ensure workers get adequate protection from the sun’s damaging rays. “We found that less than 30% of workers used sunscreen and only 8% seek shade regularly,” says Dr. Kalia. “This is a group that hasn’t received as much attention when it comes to skin cancer. I hope we can change that.”

Dr. Sunil Kalia is an Assistant Professor associated with the Department of Dermatology and Skin Science at the University of British Columbia, and Photomedicine Institute, Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute

Dr. Kalia says enforceable workplace skin protection policies are the best way to ensure better skin cancer prevention. Currently there is a lack of such policies.  Safety policies do exist for injury, and they do have some secondary benefit for skin protection: the majority of outdoor workers surveyed  wear long-sleeved shirts and hard hats, which also provide some sun protection. But Dr. Kalia says it’s not enough.

“Hard hats don’t give the neck or face much protection. And long-sleeve shirts should ideally be made with a high UV protectant fabric.”

Dr. Kalia says unlike a workplace accident, skin cancer is not an immediate threat, so it doesn’t get the attention it should.

It’s a struggle to make the case for mandating skin protection on the jobsite because the symptoms of skin cancer are so delayed–you don’t see it develop until 15-20 years later.”

Awareness efforts are underway

Dr. Kalia is a member of a national coalition working to improve skin protection for outdoor workers. The Sun Safety At Work Canada group is raising awareness of skin cancer risks in the workplace, and providing tools for employers to better protect their staff. Some simple suggestions are providing UV protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats and offering free sunscreen. More challenging is finding ways to provide shade on a worksite. And paramount is educating workers, particularly young workers, about the risks of skin damage. 

“Younger workers in our survey were the least likely to take any preventative measure—either at work or in their leisure time. And their skin is the most vulnerable. It’s very important to educate them about skin cancer.”

Dr. Kalia says the stakes are high, especially in BC, which has the highest rates of skin cancer in Canada. For melanoma alone, there are about 965 new cases in BC each year, and one in five individuals will be affected during their lifetime by skin cancer. Dr. Kalia compares the goal of skin cancer sun safety at work with the lung cancer anti-smoking campaign. “People kept smoking even though they knew it was bad for them. When smoking legislation came in, the rates dropped. We need to have workplace policy for skin cancer too.”

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