Safe Work Australia research reveals only eight percent of construction workers use adequate sun protection, putting the vast majority at higher risk of skin cancer.
The danger associated with ultraviolet (UV) radiation is as commonly known in the construction industry as the danger associated with exposure to silica dust, yet only a handful are using adequate skin cancer prevention methods, according to the Australian Work Exposure Study.
The Survey assessed the typical work activities and relevant controls (i.e. safety measures) of 459 construction workers to estimate their exposure to 38 known or suspected carcinogens. Of those surveyed, 63 percent are technicians and trade workers, 19 percent labourers and 10 percent machine operators and drivers.
In total, 86 percent of workers were determined to have probable exposure to solar UV radiation. Of these, 64 percent were deemed to have high exposure rates due to working outdoors.
These figures are much higher than those related to other prominent carcinogens, including environmental tobacco smoke (59 percent), crystalline silica (38 percent), diesel engine exhaust (37 percent), wood dust (36 percent) and lead (24 percent). Yet only eight percent of construction workers who operated outside for four or more hours a day employ adequate protection measures – sunscreen, a hat, protective clothing and adequate shade – for at least half of this time. Considering that Australia sees some of the most extreme UV radiation levels in the world, that's a significant concern.
"Many construction workers may not think of UV as a carcinogen when compared to the likes of tobacco smoke, silica and diesel fumes. However, it’s really important to remember that just because you can’t see, smell or feel UV radiation doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous," says Heather Walker, chair of Cancer Council Australia's National Skin Care Committee.
"In many ways this makes UV more of a threat as it’s hard to know when your skin is being damaged until it’s too late."
Peter Vine understands this. While working as a carpenter, he has been diagnosed with skin cancer twice – first with stage 3 melanoma on his shoulder in 1986, then on his back in 2010.
"I’d work for hours at a time on site with my shirt off. I was constantly in the sun unprotected. The first diagnosis was a real wakeup call and I was forced to change my sun habits after that. I think it’s important for guys on the worksite to know that nobody is immune from skin cancer."
Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, with outdoor work proving a primary cause. Approximately 200 melanomas and 34,000 non-melanoma skin cancers are attributed to outdoor work annually.
Walker shares five ways in which outdoor workers can protect themselves from UV radiation:
- Slip on protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible
- Slop on SPF30 or higher, broad spectrum, water resistant sunscreen. Reapply every two hours
- Slap on a broad brim hat
- Seek shade or reschedule work to avoid peak UV times, and
- Slide on sunglasses.
For more information, visit sunsmart.com.au/dontwait
Image: Yancy Min via Unsplash.com