As summer weather draws us outside, potentially thousands of workers across Canada are at risk of developing skin cancer due to unprotected exposure to the ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun.
Excessive exposure occurs sooner than you may think: "For unprotected outdoor workers, occupational exposure limits for UVR are typically exceeded within 10-15 minutes in summer,” says Dr. Thomas Tenkate, a sun safety expert and associate professor with Toronto Metropolitan University's School of Occupational and Public Health1.
That's why skin cancer is the leading occupational cancer in Canada2, with 6,800 cases of melanoma3, and about 76,000 cases of non-melanoma skin cancers occurring each year in Canada - about 40% of all cancers diagnosed4. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. If not treated early, it may spread to other organs. Non-melanoma skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma and squamish cell carcinoma, are much more common and may occur repeatedly.
Dr. Tenkate offers five strategies for reducing the risk of skin cancer among outdoor workers. He also recommends that workplaces develop an overall sun safety program5 to effectively manage together all of the health effects of sun exposure - skin cancer, heat stress, and eye damage.
Worker sun exposure and skin cancer
CAREX Canada estimates that approximately 1.7 million Canadian workers are exposed to solar ultraviolet radiation in their workplaces.6 Among that at risk may be people who work in
- facilities management (maintenance workers, groundskeepers, etc.)
- broadcast media
- tourism and hospitality (patio staff, lifeguards, tour guides, people working near water…)
- office workers (from bursts of exposure on weekends after spending M-F indoors)
- oil refining
- transportation workers
Even indoor workers with desks close to windows may be at risk.7
How to reduce risks
Use the hierarchy of controls to reduce the risk of sun cancer among your workers. "It might not be possible to do everything at once but you can build up a reasonably good prevention program over time."
1. Keep workers out of the sun at peak UV times. If possible, avoid scheduling outdoor work from 11 am to 3 pm. Stagger outdoor work schedules to reduce individual workers' overall exposure.
2. Provide shade. "A shady space (trees with a dense canopy, pop-up tents, lean-tos) for lunch and other breaks can dramatically decrease overall sun exposure." Ensure shade is available at the side of the structure to protect against reflected UV radiation from concrete, water, sand, snow, and light-coloured surfaces. Consider providing shade canopies for equipment like mowers.
3. Encourage workers to wear protective clothing, hats and eye wear. Light-coloured, tightly woven and UV-protected long sleeved shirts and pants are best. Hats should have a wide brim. Brim and neck flap shades can protect workers wearing caps or hardhats. "If workers are too hot, and/or heat stress is a concern, provide clothing that is lightweight, wicks away perspiration, and has vent holes to cool the body."
4. Promote the use of sunscreen. Advise workers to generously apply a broad spectrum and water-resistant sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, and re-apply frequently. "Ultimately, covering up with clothing is preferable to using sunscreen because most workers don’t apply a sufficient amount, forget to re-apply, or don't like using it."
5. Educate workers and supervisors about skin cancer. Deliver training, presentations, resources and reminders. Dispel the misconception that only fair skinned people are at risk. "Darker skinned individuals often believe they can't get skin cancer. They can."
How WSPS can help
Tap into these WSPS resources:
- consultants, who can help you set up a sun safety and heat stress policy and program
- How to prevent your employees from contracting Canada's most common form of cancer (article)
- Sun Safety at Work
- Agricultural Safety Topic - Sun Exposure (English)
- heat stress downloads, including:
- 5 ways to prevent heat stress (article)
- Summer's coming: 10 ways to prevent heat stress in retail kitchens (article)
- How to prevent heat stress in farming and landscaping (article)
The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.
- Threshold limit values determined by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) set out the amount of UV exposure a person can receive on their skin or eyes during an 8-hour period and are measured in units of milliwatts per square centimeter (mW/cm2) and units of millijoules per square centimeter (mJ/cm2)
- Source: "Current Burden of Occupational Cancer," Occupational Cancer Research Centre; www.occupationalcancer.ca/burden/current-burden/
- Source: Preventive Medicine 122 (2019) 81-90
- Source: Cancer Causes & Control (2021) 32:279–290
- The model Sun Safety Program and 100 additional resources for small and large businesses available at sunsafetyatwork.ca were developed during the multi-stakeholder Sun Safety at Work Canada (SSAWC) Project, led by Dr. Tenkate
- "Addressing sun safety at work in Canada," CAREX Canada; www.carexcanada.ca/special-topics/sun-safety/
- "Skin Cancer Statistics & Issues," Cancer Council Australia: wiki.cancer.org.au/skincancerstats/Settings:_Workplace