Reducing risks for outdoor workers

By Wendy Cramer
Friday, 13 October, 2006

The warmer months have arrived, and with them, higher than normal health and safety risks for Australia's many outdoor workers. Safety Solutions speaks with skin protection experts to find out why compliance to protection programs is so poor.

A three-year campaign by WorkSafe Victoria and SunSmart into the skin protection of outdoor construction workers recently finished. It provided 266 workers with free skin checks, with 2491 UV-related visits to construction and utility sites made by WorkSafe inspectors.

Nearly a quarter of all workers checked were referred on to practitioners for further medical attention. Until now, there has been little in the way of data on just how many of Australia's outdoor workers are being affected by the sun through their employment. But such programs as these are set to change the record.

Like some other aspects of health and safety, there is no legally-binding legislation that is written for skin protection that spells out exactly what employers must do to adequately protect outdoor workers.

However, every state does hold employers responsible for the overall health and safety of employees when at work, and this includes workers in outdoor environments.

SunSmart is a division of the Cancer Council in Victoria that focuses on skin cancer. It suggests that employers should conduct a UV radiation risk assessment on all outdoor work to assist in the development of appropriate sun protection measures.

According to SunSmart, the most effective way of reducing UV radiation exposure is to use a combination of the following protective measures:

  • Modify the workplace environment to include more shade and reduce reflected UV radiation from surrounding surfaces.
  • Reschedule work programs to avoid the middle of the day when UV rays are most intense.
  • Provide education on sun protection measures to managers and employees.
  • Supervise the workplace to ensure that sun protection measures are implemented.

Managing director at Skin Patrol, Sam Holt told Safety Solutions that this final point is critical. Even workplaces that have the best protection systems in place can have a bad track record when it comes to outdoor workers if they're just not using the protection at hand.

For example, Holt suggests that workers spending extended periods of time outdoors should wear long pants, long-sleeve shirt, wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and have a sunscreen kit including lip balm and a good quality 30+ in a spray bottle.

The onus is on both the employer and employee. First, the employer needs to provide a quality of clothing that is comfortable for long periods and employees should be educated as to why they need to wear their PPE.

"Choose the shirt and pant fabric carefully. There are many fabrics that have a UPF 50+ rating, but very few are breathable and wearable in hot climates. Most 'sunsafe' garments are constructed with man-made fibres and polyester and make claims about moisture wicking and breathability.

"We recommend Woolscience, which is a fabric created by the Wool Board of Australia. It consists of a merino wool lining and a polyester outer layer. Our research has shown that most workers don't wear issued clothing because it is too hot, doesn't breathe or harbours odours.

"Similarly, there is no point just having 4-litre containers of sunscreen at work. We recommend issuing workers with lip balms and convenient sunscreen options such as spray bottles that don't result in slippery hands."

At the end of the day, both employers and workers need to be educated on the risks involved in outdoor work. It is only then that employers can understand the need to supply adequate protection that will be worn by employees.

According to Holt, the main risks are skin cancer (melanoma and non-melanoma) and ocular diseases. A secondary issue is premature ageing.

"If not detected early, melanoma is fatal and it results in around 1600 deaths each year in Australia. Skin cancer is our most common cancer and Australia has the highest incidence of the disease in the world," he says.

"OHS staff and management are often as ill-informed as workers. We encourage all of our clients to put senior management through the skin checks as well. Nothing creates more board room impetus than senior management understanding first hand the personal and financial costs associated with the disease."

Holt believes that regular workplace skin checks such as these are just as important as PPE when it comes to ensuring the safety of employees.

This is because early detection is vital for successful treatment of the disease and skin problems can surface from exposure over the past 20 years. He recommends that people at high risk of skin cancer - such as outdoor workers - should have an annual check.

"Equally as important though is self-checking, which should be performed at least four times a year. To be able to effectively self-examine, a basic understanding of the types of skin cancer and their early warning signs is needed," he says.

However, the current legislation does not cover workplace skin checks. And because there has not been much in the way of data on outdoor workers, the Cancer Council's position suggests there is no evidence that population-based screening will reduce the incidence of skin cancer.

Holt disagrees, and says that an annual skin check, ongoing education and better legislation around improving sun protection will reduce the costs of the disease by increasing early detection.

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