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UV Risk in the Workplace

By Jennifer Anderson
Last updated: January 8, 2024
Presented by AD Safety Network
Key Takeaways

UVR protection is everybody’s business, and having fun in the sun begins with sun safety!

July is National UV Safety Month, so it’s a good time for a quick overview of UV rays, the risks they present, and how to protect ourselves from them.

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Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) is more common than most people realize and we are exposed to it in more places than you might think.

Some individuals might also be at higher risk for skin damage and will require higher levels of UVR protection.

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Regardless, everyone should be protected from risks while on the job, including seemingly minor ones like UV exposure.

Effects of UVR Exposure in the Workplace

Sunburns are the immediate effects of too much unprotected exposure to UV rays.

Extended overexposure to the sun results in premature wrinkling, age spots, thinning and dry skin, and an increased risk of skin cancer.

The eyes can also be burned due to sun exposure. They become red, dry, painful, and feel gritty.

Chronic exposure to sunlight may cause pterygium, a type of tissue growth that leads to cataracts and macular degeneration, which can lead to blindness.

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UV Risk by Occupation

People who do the majority of their job indoors don’t have to worry about UV rays because they spend most of their working hours sheltered from the sun.

Many occupations, however, involve working in the sun for much of the day, including:

  • Construction workers
  • Landscapers, arborists, and agricultural workers
  • Lifeguards
  • Fishermen
  • Police officers
  • Park rangers
  • Civil engineers
  • Tour guides
  • Postal workers and delivery drivers

Traditionally indoor occupations are not entirely free of UV risk, either. Some tasks and jobs will create exposure even away from the sun, such as:

  • Welders who work with specialized lamps and welding arcs
  • Workers in television studios or on theater stages
  • Lab workers and healthcare professionals who work in radiation areas
  • Workers in the graphics and paper industry
  • Occupations that make use of photo curing equipment

At-risk, indoor workers should wear the appropriate protective clothing and eyewear.

(Find more safety tips for outdoor workers in Summertime Roadwork and Heat Stroke)

The Magnitude of UV Radiation Risk

The degree of risk to the eyes and skin depends largely on the climate and the individual’s sensitivity to UV radiation.

Those who have a fair skin type are more at risk for skin damage. One might expect that those with light colored eyes would likewise be at greater UVR risk. However, that isn’t the case. Eyes of every color are equally susceptible to cataracts and other environmentally-related eye diseases.

Work hours are also a factor. Sunlight exposure is highest during the summer months, between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Working outdoors during those times places workers at increased UV risk.

Similarly, work location makes a difference. For example, snow, light-colored sand, and water-reflected rays from a pool or other natural water body increase UV light, thereby increasing the UV risk. Moreover, at worksites with these conditions, UV rays may reach workers’ exposed skin from both above and below.

Some workers are more susceptible to UV rays because of their health, and many drugs increase sensitivity to sunlight and, therefore, the UV radiation risk. These drugs include:

  • Thiazides
  • Diuretics
  • Tetracycline
  • Doxycycline
  • Sulfa antibiotics
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen

Chemotherapy and radiation treatments also increase UV radiation sensitivity. Workers whose health or medication make them more susceptible will, at the very least, have to take extra precautions or change work so they are indoors.

How Can You Ensure UV Protection in the Workplace?

Employers should provide adequate UV protection to workers who are routinely exposed to the sun and other sources of UV radiation.

One measure is to provide outdoor workers with protective items including wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses or safety glasses designed for high UV protection, clothing with a high ultraviolet protection factor (UPF), and sunscreens with an SPF of 30 or more.

Employees who are particularly sensitive to UVR because of a health condition or chemotherapy treatments may have to change occupations or take on a different position within the organization. In such cases, the employer should make an effort to assist them in finding suitable work and easing their transition to the new job.

UV Safety Is Everyone’s Responsibility

Employers are expected to provide worker accommodations for UV radiation protection and to counsel them on UVR safety. However, employees also have a responsibility to comply with employer cautions and to work in a safe manner as well.

OSHA cautions workers to take the following UVR safety precautions:

  • Wear protective clothing with a high ultraviolet protection factor (UPF)
  • Wear clothing that is light-colored and covers the legs and arms
  • Wear a hat with a wide brim that protects face and has neck flaps
  • Use eyewear that is designed to provide a high level of protection from UVR, including wrap-around design to protect the eyes from the sides as well as the front
  • Apply 30+ SPF sunscreen to all exposed areas of the body
  • In the case of sunburn, apply a low-dose (0.5%-1%) hydrocortisone cream to reduce the burning sensation and swelling and speed up healing
  • Keep hydrated at all times

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