Protecting Yourself and Others from Overexposure to the Sun
Knowledge is not just power, it can also save your life. OSHA requires employers to provide safety training to workers in a language they can understand because hazard education can prevent incidents and reduce injuries and fatalities. One hazard that may get overlooked in some training programs is sun exposure.
Working for several hours under a full sun and high temperatures presents multiple dangers such as skin cancer, sunburn, and heat stress. Some workers may not take sun overexposure seriously and try to tough it out. But putting yourself at unnecessary risk is not smart. Sun overexposure often goes unnoticed on outdoor work sites and many employers don’t provide the necessary protection.
Workers often forget to use sunscreen and other precautions. Long workdays in the sun increases your ultraviolet radiation (UV) exposure, which is a risk factor for skin cancer. Ultraviolet radiation is sneaky and persistent. UV rays can pass through clouds. Rays can bounce off surfaces and reflect off water, snow, and sand.
UV rays overexposure is the most important preventable factor in the development of skin cancer, according to the EPA. UV ray intensity varies based on factors like the time of day, land cover, latitude, surface characteristics, seasons, altitude, and cloud cover.
Weather forecasts sometimes include the UV index number for the day. This is a forecast of the amount of UV radiation expected at mid-day. A low number such as 2 would require just sunscreen and glasses, while an 8 or higher necessitates extra precautions. Eleven or higher is extreme. But even a low UV index number does not mean that unprotected sun exposure is risk-free.
Sunburns and Skin Cancer
Sunburn symptoms usually start 4 hours after exposure, worsening in 24-36 hours. Headache, fever, fatigue, and red, swollen skin are common symptoms. Drink lots of water and avoid further sun exposure if you’re burned. Aloe or 1% hydrocortisone cream can ease symptoms. Severe sunburns, fever of over 101 degrees, and extreme pain for longer than 48 hours require medical attention.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. The body parts exposed to the sun, such as the face, neck, ears, forearms, and hands are the common places for skin cancer. Be aware of any skin spot that changes or itches. Keep an eye out for irregular borders on moles, asymmetrical moles, variable color, large moles, and painful moles. Skin cancer can be treated if it’s caught early.
Employers should avoid scheduling outdoor work when sunlight exposure is the greatest if possible. If sunny job sites are necessary, provide shade, training, and protective equipment and sunblock. There are several things you can do to protect yourself from the sun:
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants.
- Choose dark clothing with a tight weave, which is more protective.
- Use wide-brimmed hats.
- Wear sunglasses with nearly 100% UV protection and side panels.
- Apply and reapply sunscreen.
- Avoid mid-day sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
- Seek shady spots when possible.
- Pay attention to the UV index number.
Liberally apply sunscreen 20 minutes before exposure and reapply every two hours; it washes away when you sweat. Pay additional attention to the ears, scalp, lips, neck, and backs of hands Use water-resistant, 30SPF or higher sun block; water-resistant sunscreens still need to be reapplied. Read the instructions on the bottle. Throw out sunscreen that’s one to two years old. Slathering on the sunscreen doesn’t mean you can stay out in the sun longer. Use the other sun protection methods as well. Damaging sun exposure is less obvious than other types of hazards but no less dangerous.
You don’t have to get sever sunburns or heat stroke to suffer the consequences of long, unprotected workdays in the sun. Learn about the site conditions and weather forecasts beforehand. Stock up on sunscreen and have other sun protection methods ready for when they’re needed. While skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, it is preventable.
Comprehensive safety training is the best defense against all workplace hazards, including sun overexposure. 360training.com is a great resource for convenient online environmental health and safety courses in English and Spanish.