For 9 million Americans, being outside and in the sun is not just for summer fun – it’s a part of their job.
Workers in farming, landscaping, construction, recreation and even postal workers will spend hours in the sun – and consequently be exposed to potentially harmful levels of ultraviolet radiation.
Ultraviolet radiation, and specifically UVB, is the main environmental hazard to the outdoor worker. Most workers’ shifts include the peak intensity hours of UV exposure – 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Since this type of radiation (UVB) easily penetrates clouds, it can reach worrisome levels even on days where little sun is visible. It easily passes through glass and can be reflected into areas of apparent shade.
UVB penetrates through the tough, dead outer layers of skin, into the replicating layers. It is there that it interacts with the living tissue, not entirely in a negative fashion – UV radiation on unprotected skin produces Vitamin D. Many believe, and there is some evidence to back it up, that there are anti-cancer properties in this potent antioxidant vitamin.
But radiation on living tissue also has a biologic cost. UVB radiation causes DNA damage and is officially listed as a carcinogen. This damage is cumulative.
Ultraviolet radiation and skin cancer share a similar relationship to that of cigarette smoking and lung cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, those who work outside are twice as likely to contract skin cancer as indoor workers.
To protect workers from this hazard, we need to reduce the dose of UVB radiation.
The obvious solution for employers is to instruct workers to avoid sun exposure and seek shade when available. When possible, employers can rotate or stagger work shifts so that employees spend less time working during the sunniest parts of the day.
While the suggestion that people wear long-sleeve shirts during high temperature periods usually is greeted with derision, in fact there are a variety of new fabrics with high Sun Protection Factor values that are light weight, breathable and durable.
One of the oldest fabrics – cotton – has long been recognized for its skin protective value in the hottest climates. Cotton long-sleeved, loose-fitting shirts and pants, and broad-billed hats are some effective clothing options for outdoor workers. In dry climates, the fabric actually soaks up sweat and is an effective evaporative cooler.
Sunblock provides UV protection, but the level of protection is almost universally overestimated.
The most common error people make is using high Sun Protection Factor, sweat-proof sunblock and applying it only once. Sunblock generally loses effectiveness after about two hours due to sweating, the friction of clothing and deterioration due to sunshine. And too often, too little is applied. An ounce is recommended to get advertised protection. But remember, sunblock isn’t “liquid shade.”
These common sense protective measures can help safeguard you and your employees year round, but particularly during the summer months when, in most parts of the country, exposure to UVB radiation is highest.
With awareness and a few simple steps, we can help workers avoid the short-term sting of a sunburn and the long-term consequences of too much sun exposure.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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