Working in the Sun - an occupational health risk

Mark Owen – Health & Safety Expert

May 23 2016

The weather pundits are forecasting another (sic) scorching summer. Today, looking at the rain beating on my office window that’s hard to believe. But should those upbeat forecasts come true it’s important to remember that sunlight is harmful to skin. Anyone employing workers who are required to work outdoors in the sun for most of the day must consider the risks and take reasonably practicable steps to reduce the risks. Anyone who works in the sun is at risk. Everyone knows that the ultra-violet rays in sunlight will give you a tan, but a tan, the change in skin colour is in fact a sign of skin damage, and excessive exposure can lead to long term health issues. People with a family history of skin cancer are at greatest risk, but those with pale skin, red or fair hair, and lots of freckles are also at high risk. People with brown or black skin are at low risk but people of all skin colours can become dehydrated and suffer from heat exhaustion. Where workers have to work in the sun or spend a large part of their working day in the sun employers must take reasonably practicable (sensible) steps to reduce the risks to which they are exposed. These measures will include;

  • Explaining the hazard, risks and precautions as part of routine health and safety training; maybe reiterating it in early summer tool-box talks.
  • Encouraging workers to keep covered up through the summer, especially during the mid-day sum when the sun at its strongest. The Health and Safety Executive suggests wearing a long sleeved shirt and a hat with a brim to protect ears and neck. Some work wear suppliers have lightweight ventilated clothing designed to block the transmission of ultraviolet light.
  • Encouraging workers to use a sunscreen on exposed parts; SPF15 or higher.
  • Suggesting that workers should take their breaks in the shade rather than staying out in direct sunlight. Site water points and rest areas in the shade.
  • Rescheduling work to avoid working in direct sunlight during the middle of the day.
  • Encouraging workers to drink plenty of water throughout the day to avoid dehydration.
  • Asking workers to regularly check their skin for unusual spots or moles that have changed seeking medical advice if changes are noticed or they are itching or bleeding.

This isn’t a particularly onerous task list. Follow these steps and you’ll satisfy the enforcing authorities that you do are taking sensible and reasonably practicable action to meet your statutory duties. Other benefits will also accrue;

  • Less absence due to sunburn.
  • A healthier and better informed workforce
  • Reduced risk to employees of skin cancer from long term exposure to sunlight.


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