How to Protect Outdoor Workers From Sun Exposure

  • Workplace Health & Safety
construction worker in the sun
Michelle Ann Zoleta

Michelle Ann Zoleta, Health & Safety Team Manager

(Last updated )

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can damage the skin and cause heat stress, sunburn, premature skin ageing, and skin cancer. It can also lead to eye damage and diseases, such as cataracts and photokeratitis.

As an employer, it is your legal obligation to provide a safe working environment to your employees. It becomes critical then that you take all reasonable precautions to protect your outdoor workers from exposure to UV radiation even in winter.

What is the risk of outdoor work?

Studies show that over 1.5 million outdoor workers in Canada are substantially exposed to the sun while at work. Skin cancer is the most common occupational cancer in Canada, and outdoor workers are at an elevated risk for developing this disease.

All outdoors workers are at potential risk of exposure to UV radiation. These include agricultural workers, maintenance workers, patio servers, fish harvesters, postal carriers, landscapers, lifeguards, brick masons, loggers, construction workers, ski instructors, gardeners, campground staff, and pipeline workers.

What kind of damage is caused by UV radiation?

UV radiation is absorbed by the skin’s living cells and damages the growth and appearance of the skin. This can lead to:


This is the most common and immediate effect of overexposure to UV rays. Sunburned skin can turn bright red within 15 to 20 hours. This can be painful and sometimes may cause peeling of the skin. Such an exposure, especially over the long term, has been linked to skin cancer.

It is important to remember that one can get sunburned even on a cloudy day. The risk of exposure increases with sunlight bouncing off surfaces, such as snow, water, or pavement.

Accelerated skin ageing

Long-term exposure to UV radiation increases the rate of skin ageing. The skin loses its elasticity and may become thin, wrinkled, freckled, and blemished. While such damage may take years to appear, it is irreversible.

Skin cancer

Prolonged unprotected exposure to UV rays over many years can increase the risk of skin cancer. Chronic exposure is often linked with squamous cell cancer. It occurs in areas that get most UV radiation exposure, such as forehead, cheeks, nose, lower lip, and top of the ears. If detected in time, it can be removed and completely cured.

Eye damage

UV radiation is particularly harmful for your eyes. Short-term exposure can cause temporary painful conditions, such as photokeratitis (inflammation of the cornea) and conjunctivitis (inflammation of the white area of the eyeball).

Long-term exposure may add to the risk of developing a cataract or macular degeneration.

Exposure to UV rays reflected by snow and ice can cause a type of photokeratitis, commonly called snow blindness.

What steps should I take to protect my outdoor employees?

You should first conduct a sun exposure risk assessment and create a sun safety plan accordingly. Having a solid sun safety policy is a great way to ensure employees are taking the proper precautions when working outdoors.

Why is it important to have a sun safety policy?

A sun safety policy is instrumental in helping you to reduce the amount of UV rays your employees are exposed to while at work. This includes employees whose main job functions involved them being outside.

You can reduce the amount of sun exposure by putting the following safety controls in place:

Engineering controls

These measures modify the work area to reduce exposure. To prevent sun exposure, employers should provide shaded areas, such as tents, for rest breaks. They should also provide shade structures, such as canopies or umbrellas, on large machinery and equipment.

Administrative controls

Administrative controls are policies and procedures developed to reduce sun exposure. You should:

  • Avoid scheduling work in the sun between 11:00am and 3:00pm, when UV levels are highest. Also, keep the hardest physical tasks for cooler hours of the day.
  • If work during these hours is unavoidable, provide shade structures (umbrellas, canopies, trees) to protect your staff from direct sunshine.
  • Schedule work-rest cycles to give workers sufficient time to cool down in shaded areas.
  • Provide access to chilled water and encourage frequent water breaks.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
  • This includes use of sunscreen, protective clothing, and eye wear.
  • Wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and wide-brimmed hats.
  • Clothing made using sun-resistant fabrics is more effective in blocking UV radiation.
  • Wear UV protective eye wear to shield your eyes from direct sunlight. It is recommended that you use wrap-around sunglasses, which absorb UVA and UVB radiation.
  • Sunscreen (broad-spectrum; SPF 30 or higher) should be applied 20 minutes before stepping outside. It must be reapplied every two hours, or more often if you’re sweating.
  • Encourage your staff to examine their skin on a regular basis. If they spot anything unusual (new moles, pigments, scaly patches), they must see a doctor immediately.

Do I need to develop a sun safety policy?

If your employees perform outdoor work, sun exposure prevention should be part of your workplace health and safety program.

You should also get feedback from your staff when creating and putting such a plan in place. You must also review your sun safety plan regularly to see if it is effective.

Do you need help developing health and safety policies for your business?

Our experts can help you develop company policies as well as with any other HRhealth and safety, or employment advice you may need. See how we have helped other small and medium businesses get their business compliant with provincial legislation.

To learn more about how our services can help your business grow, call us today at 1 (833) 247-3652.

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