9th June, 2021
Working outside is great in the summer, but while the sun brings warmer temperatures, it also increases health risks. And protecting yourself involves more than just sunscreen. If you or your team do work outdoors, it's time to get sun smart and protect your skin.
It's nice to get some sunny days, and while the UK weather might not always be guaranteed, summer does mean that warmer weather arrives, and we even get the odd heatwave (if we're lucky)!
For many outdoor workers, summer is their favourite time of the year, and maybe it's yours too. Finally, you can take off the extra layers, put away the heater, and stop bracing yourself for the wind, rain and snow. It's much more pleasant working outside when you're not scraping ice off your tools.
So the sun is often a welcome sight, and many people love working outside when the sun is shining. It's the perks of working outdoors. You're not sat in an office waiting for the weekend so you can enjoy some time in the outdoors - your workplace is the outdoors. And summer is when you can enjoy work like construction, landscaping, postal services and other outdoor jobs. It's the time of year you will be more grateful not to be stuck inside. But the sun can also be a hazard, and like any other hazard, it needs to be controlled - it's the law.
At work, you must identify hazards and control risks to protect people from harm. Find out more about the legal requirements for risk assessments.
Too much sunlight is harmful to your skin. The most serious risk is an increased chance of developing skin cancer. Yes, the UV radiation you get from sunlight is a carcinogen. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK, with over 40,000 new cases diagnosed each year. And there can be other health problems with too much sun exposure, besides cancer. Like skin damage, premature ageing, sunburn and eye damage.
There are two types of ultra violet (UV) light in the sun's rays that can damage the skin, UVA and UVB. Both have been implicated in causing skin cancer.
And it turns out the Victorians got it right about tans. In the 1900s people would avoid getting tans, not so much for health reasons, but (ironically for this post) because they didn't want to look like they worked outdoors. But they were right to avoid a tan because a tan isn't healthy - a tan is sun damage.
Like with many health-related topics, you need to strike a balance. Some sun exposure is good for the human body. Sunshine doesn't just improve your mood - the sun also boosts your Vitamin D levels.
But how do you risk assess the sun?
Well, first of all, consider if it is actually a hazard in your workplace. If you are working indoors for the majority of the day, then probably not. But if you or your team are outdoors some or most of the time, it probably is. Not every day, but on those clear sky summer days especially. You should consider the increased risk on sunny days and put controls in place to reduce harm.
The good news is, there's nothing overly complex about sun protection at work. You can apply the same good practices you do (or should do) when you go on holiday, or when you are out at the park on a sunny day. And if you think we're just going to say "put on some sunscreen" and leave it at that, you might be surprised just how many controls you can use to minimise the risk.
Ok after what I just said, we had to start with this one! Ideally for outdoor work, you want an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of at least 30 and a 4-star rating. The better sunscreen you wear, the better protection.
And don't just apply it to your face and arms. Protect every exposed area of your skin. Your face, arms, shoulders, hands, legs, ankles, neck, ears, bald heads. Everywhere.
Oh, and that bottle that's been at the back of your cupboard forever? Discard it and get a new one. Unless the expiry date says otherwise, it's wise to replace sunscreen bottles every 12 months.
Apply sunscreen liberally. If you apply too thinly, it will reduce the amount of protection. And when you are working hard outdoors, sweat and clothing can rub off the sunscreen, so make sure you re-apply during breaks and as necessary. Pay extra attention to vulnerable areas such as the back of your neck and head.
Reducing exposure is one of the best ways to reduce exposure. And if you keep your top on, that's a whole lot less skin to cover in sunscreen. Plus, on a construction site, your buddy probably doesn't want to rub sunscreen into your back throughout the day.
Closely woven loose-fitting clothing that covers your skin (e.g. long-sleeved tops and trousers) give you the most protection.
If you are working on a construction site, you might be wearing a hard hat anyway. If you're working outdoors in a different setting, then wearing a hat with a brim or a flap that covers your ears and the back of your neck can help to protect those sensitive areas from sun exposure.
Whenever possible, get yourself in the shade. Especially when the sun is blazing down. While this advice might not always be practical when you're working, it can certainly be achieved on your breaks and at lunchtime. Particularly between 11 am and 3 pm when the sun is at its strongest.
Spend time in the shade when the sun is strongest. In the UK, this is between 11 am and 3 pm from March to October.
Sun exposure can cause burns to your eyes (like sunburn) and even lead to cataracts. And it's important to remember that sunlight can bounce off other surfaces, like water and metal, so the tools, equipment and materials you use could reflect the sun back on your face.
Some people think that if they tan in the sun easily and don't usually burn, that the sun isn't a major concern for them. They think their tan protects them. But really, just like sunburn, a tan is another (albeit less painful) sign of skin damage. It could result in long term skin health problems.
When you are working in the sun, and especially the heat, you need to drink more fluids to prevent dehydration. Your body needs to replace the extra fluids you lose through sweating. So drink plenty of water when you are working outside in the sun.
Lot's of people get caught out by the sun, especially in the UK where we don't expect it to be very sunny. Check the weather forecast and keep a bottle of sunscreen handy at all times during the summer.
Check your skin regularly for any unusual moles or spots. See a doctor promptly if you find anything that is changing in shape, size or colour, changing appearance in any way, itching or bleeding.
Hopefully, this blog post will help you to assess your sun exposure, and understand the control measures that will reduce the risk when working outdoors.
This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.
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