Spotlight on sunlight

08 June 2016


The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is calling for coordinated action across all sectors to support the substantial behavioural change that will be required to improve health outcomes in line with its new health and safety system strategy: 'Helping Great Britain work well'. With this in mind, and with mid-summer imminent, now is the time for employers to bring sun safety to the forefront of the minds of Britain's outdoor workers.

The implications of exposure to sunlight

The risks of extended exposure to the sun are now well known. Why should this be an issue for employers?

According to research by Imperial College London commissioned by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) published in 2015:

  • malignant melanoma (a type of skin cancer) kills almost 50 people each year in the UK because of exposure to solar radiation at work (compared with 142 killed last year in workplace accidents in Great Britain).
  • 240 new malignant melanoma cases are registered annually.
  • the majority affected are men.
  • around 40 per cent of malignant melanoma cancer cases involve construction workers.

The HSE has found that exposure to the sun within the construction industry accounts for the highest proportion of cancer deaths and registrations. Excessive exposure to solar radiation can also be found within the manufacturing, mining, quarrying, electricity, gas and water industries.

Skin cancer is not the only risk of sun exposure. There are also short term health risks of heat exhaustion, sunburn and dehydration. These can all reduce employee productivity and increase absenteeism.

There is also a risk of litigation. In Australia between 2002 and 2009, $38.4 million worth of payments are estimated to have been made for occupational exposure to ultraviolet radiation, causing skin cancer. Although Australia is undoubtedly sunnier than the UK and so the problem there is exacerbated, there is still a threat in the UK - as we know, cloud cover does not protect completely against solar radiation.

In the UK there is a long history of employees taking action for exposure to asbestos, allergens, noise, stress and vibrating tools. There is a legal precedent for such claims in employment law (breach of the implied term of the duty of trust and confidence), personal injury and even criminal contexts (breach of Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations for example).

While civil claims may flounder because of insufficient proof of the causal connection between sun exposure at work (as opposed to sun exposure out of work), criminal liability requires only a failure to take all reasonably practicable steps to protect workers and others from the "risk" of harm.

What can you do about this? - Changing a 'macho culture'

The HSE has called for long-term and coordinated action across all sectors, bringing in additional partners such as the NHS and others to support a substantial behavioural change and to raise awareness. This might be easier said than done when it comes to sun safety in the construction industry.

A 2015 report by the University of Nottingham again commissioned by IOSH found a 'macho culture' in some parts of the industry in relation to sun safety. Nearly two thirds of construction workers questioned, who worked outside for an average of just under seven hours a day, thought they were not at risk or were unsure if they were. More than half (59%) reported having sunburn - a major contribution to skin cancer - at least once in the previous year.

To tackle this, IOSH advises:

  • advertising regular updates on the UV index from weather forecasts,
  • minimising sun exposure in the middle of the day, and
  • asking employees to wear long-sleeved, loose fitting tops and trousers rather than shorts.

Principal contractors might consider a toolbox talk on the issue, and providing a sunscreen station as low cost measures to protect employees, contractors and sub-contractors and minimise the risks of claims or prosecution.

These measures either provide employees and contractors with the resources to protect themselves or require structural change, ensuring that workers are not exposed at all.

Requiring employees to put on sunscreen and wear certain clothes might be seen as overly paternalistic but in reality, given the protection it provides, appropriate clothing should be encouraged to be regarded as personal protective equipment.

The Royal Mail Group, whose workforce is 83.7% male, recognised the issue of resistance to changes in dress code to protect staff from the sun and conducted a survey of 1,153 workers to explore this further. They found that if workers knew about the risks and how to protect themselves, they were more likely to take positive protection measures.

It was their conclusion that sun safety training and awareness should be their first line of defence. They distributed information cards, and emphasised key, 'stay safe' measures - cover up, protect your head, use sunscreen and be aware of changes in the skin. It is difficult to know whether there has been a positive outcome from these measures, or indeed how to measure 'success'. What is clear is that arming people with knowledge can be no bad thing and identifying the risk and taking all reasonably practicable steps to manage it, is likely to be an important aspect of a good defence.

Clearly tackling exposure to sunshine is important but it may need some thought as to what is likely to be the best approach with your workforce to maximise your chance of implementing change that makes a difference. By addressing the issue though, employers may prevent injuries or death, and liabilities as well as helping to facilitate a wider awareness of the risks, which goes some way to assisting the HSE with their strategy to help Great Britain work well.


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