The heat is on employers to protect workers from the sun

| January 8, 2018

Sunday 7th of January saw one of the hottest days in Sydney’s history, with temperatures topping 50 centigrade in the middle of the Sydney Cricket Ground where England wilted in the Ashes match against Australia.  Melbourne and other regional capitals have also suffered from extreme hot spells this summer and the spectre of global warming means the heat is only going to get worse.

While office workers and people at home can protect themselves from the sun during the day, people working outside must bear its full brunt.  Most of us know that too much sun exposure can harm our health – but because this harm is not always visible, it’s hard to identify the damage until it’s too late. Over-exposure to solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a serious hazard for everyone, but particularly those who work outdoors every day.

So as the southern hemisphere suffers the scorching months of high summer, authorities from both Australia and New Zealand are taking the time to remind employers of their obligations regarding sun exposure risks.

Australia

The Skin & Cancer Foundation of Australia are urging employers to ‘wake up on sun safety’, for example after new research found an ‘unacceptable’ number of organisations are failing to meet their responsibilities in protecting workers from the sun.

According to the report, nearly two million employees who work outside are not being provided with any form of sun protection by their employers, and are instead being “left to fend for themselves.”

The report found that 8 million Australian workers work outside sometimes, mostly, or all of the time. Alarmingly, 57% of these outdoor workers said their employers did not supply sunscreen, 66% did not supply protective clothing and 80% did not provide sunglasses.

Of most concern, was that 28% of outdoor workers were provided no protection at all from their companies.

Associate Professor Chris Baker said the number of employees provided with little or no protection was simply “unacceptable”, and that employers needed to take the danger as seriously as other health and safety issues.

“It’s hard to know why they don’t see it as their responsibility as clearly there is a duty of care for employers to provide a safe workplace. While the numbers are improving, we still have a long way to go.”

Andrew Farr, workplace law partner at PwC, said the careless attitude by many employers to sun protection was concerning, and that employers were potentially opening themselves up to hefty workers’ compensation claims down the road.

“Given Australia’s robust Work Health and Safety standards and laws, I would hope to see more employers realising that it’s their responsibility to ensure that outdoor workers are protected from risk, and that includes sun damage and sunburn”

“Ideally, comprehensive sun protection would be provided to outdoor workers. It is important to stay compliant, minimise any liability to your business and do the right thing by your employees and their families. The technical definition of ‘comprehensive sun protection’ differs from state to state, so every employer should know their obligations to staff who work outdoors.”

New Zealand

WorkSafe New Zealand is also urging employers to make smarter sun safety choices. It’s reminding organisations that New Zealand has the highest rate of melanoma in the world, with an alarming 2000 people reported to the New Zealand cancer registry with lesions every year – around six every day. The toll is proving deadly, with over 300 New Zealanders dying from the deadly skin cancer every year.

Outdoor workers can be exposed to harmful UV radiation after as little as 10 minutes. This can increase the risk of developing serious health conditions such as skin cancer and these are risks both PCBUs and workers have a responsibility to manage.

WorkSafe say employers need to consider the range of higher-level control measures they can use to keep workers out of the sun. This may include re-scheduling outdoor tasks, moving work indoors, or providing shade structures.

If that isn’t possible, they’re urging businesses to use lower-level control measures, such as providing protective clothing, hats and eyewear, and SPF 50+ sunscreen, and have issued a new guide to worker sun safety.

Sun Safety Myths

While the days of applying tanning oil rather than sun screen are over, many people still believe dangerous myths about the risk posed by sun exposure and the protective measures it requires.

Myth 1: When you can’t see or feel the sun, you are safe and can’t get burnt.

False – UV radiation can’t be seen or felt. Sunlight or warmth from the sun is not the same as UV radiation. The radiation from the sun does not provide light that we can see, or heat that we can feel, so your skin can burn even if it feels cool.

Myth 2: Wearing Personal Protective Equipment is an inconvenience and difficult to enforce.

False – While wearing inappropriate PPE and protective clothing can be cumbersome it’s not the right fit for the job, choosing the right attire and equipment reduces discomfort, rather than increasing it.

Myth 3: Sunscreen provides enough protection on its own.

False – Sunscreen cannot provide complete protection and should not be the only form of preventative measure.  It must be applied correctly over all exposed areas and reapplied regularly as it wears off, especially after coming into contact with water.

Myth 4: I haven’t used sun protection before and it’s too late now to start.

False – Sun damage adds up over time, meaning the more we are exposed, the greater the risk. It is never too late to start protecting one’s skin and eyes against UV radiation.

Myth 5: I have developed a gradual sun tan without burning so I am better protected from the sun.

False – A suntan is a reaction to protect the skin from UV radiation. It does this by creating more pigment, which provides a very small SPF. While the suntan is present, it provides a very small amount of protection from future sunburn but the cell damage caused by this process can be enough to trigger skin cancer. Overall, the risk of being harmed outweighs the small and short-lived benefit of the suntan.

Whether we’re at work or on the beach or just walking down the street, a combination of clothing, sunscreen and shade is as vital for adults at work as it is for our children.  The heat of the summer will pass, but the damage wrought by the sun is long lasting.

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