July is National UV Awareness month! Being safe in the sun begins with understanding what UV rays are, and what risks they present. Ultraviolet radiation can occur in more places than you think, and some individuals might be at a higher risk for skin damage.

UVR-Risk Occupations

For many employers and their employees UV safety isn’t even an issue. However, certain occupations involve working in the sun and other ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposures where precautions should definitely be considered and implemented.

Obvious occupations that put workers in sun exposure include: lifeguards, construction works, gardeners, landscape employees, arborists, horticulturalists, agricultural workers, outdoor recreation workers like ski resort guides, fishermen, police officers and those in the military, park rangers, civil engineers, guides, and any other outdoor occupations like delivery people. Outdoor workers receive significant exposure to solar UVR. Thus, there have an increased risk of the negatives associated with UVR exposure.

While skin should be a concern, so too, should the eyes. Other indoor occupations may involve working in the sun or in other UVR-unsafe environments. These include: welders who work with specialized lamps and welding arcs, those who work in television studios and on theatre stages, some medical and scientific lab workers and healthcare workers in radiation areas, those employed in the graphics and paper industry and occupations working with photo curing equipment.

Most indoor workers are normally protected by clothing and eyewear. This same level of protection is not usually guaranteed for outdoor workers.

Magnitude of UVR Risk

The degree of the risk to eyes and skin depends largely on climate and individual sensitivity to UVR. Those who have a fair skin type are more at risk for skin damage. One would expect that those with light colored eyes would be at greater UVR risk. However, the range of susceptibility does not exist in eye color. All racial types are equally susceptible to cataract and other environmentally related eye diseases.

Work hours are also a factor. Sunlight exposure is highest during the summer months and during the hours between 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Working outdoors during those times increases the UVR risk.

Work location is also a consideration. For example, snow and light-colored sand, and water-reflected rays from a pool or other natural water body increase UV light and increase the UVR risk. At work sites with these conditions, UV rays may reach workers' exposed skin from both above and below!

Workers are at risk of UV radiation even when it is cloudy and/or when they are able to work in the shade. Some workers are more susceptible to UVR because of their health, and many drugs increase sensitivity to sunlight and the UVR risk. These include: thiazides, diuretics, tetracycline, doxycycline, sulfa antibiotics, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments also increase UVR sensitivity. Workers whose health/medication make them more susceptible will, at the very least, have to take extra precautions or change work so they are indoors.

What Measures Should be Taken to Ensure UVR Protection in the Workplace?

Employers and businesses that expect employees to work in environments where they are routinely exposed to solar and other UVR sources owe it to their employees to provide UVR protection to make their work environment as safe as possible. One measure is to provide outdoor workers with protective items including sun protection hats, sunglasses or safety glasses designed for high UVR protection, clothing with a high clothing protection factor (CPF), and sunscreens with 30+ SPF.

OSHA regulations state that employers who require their employees to work in high UVR-risk situations must make every effort to minimize the UVR risk. However, as with all work environments, the responsibility is on employees to take precautions and to inform their employers if they deem this to be an unsafe work environment for them.

If you are particularly sun sensitive because of your skin photo type or because of health conditions, such as chemotherapy, you may have to make the decision to change occupations. In this case, it behooves your employer to give a best effort to find you a work venue within the company that accommodates this sun sensitivity. This may not always be possible, as for the sun-sensitive worker, the difficulties of achieving substantial reduction to solar UVR exposure may mean seeking a different career path with another employer.

Dangers of UVR Exposure

Ultraviolet (UV) rays are a part of sunlight that is an invisible form of radiation. UV rays can penetrate and change the structure of skin cells. Three types of UV rays: ultraviolet A (UVA), ultraviolet B (UVB), and ultraviolet C (UVC) are present in the atmosphere.

UVA is the most abundant source of solar radiation at the earth's surface. It penetrates beyond the top layer of skin. UVA radiation has been shown to cause damage to connective tissue and increase risk of skin cancer. UVB rays do not penetrate as deeply, but they can still cause some forms of skin cancer. Natural UVC rays are absorbed by the earth's atmosphere, so they pose no risk to workers.

Effects of UVR Exposure in the Workplace

Sunburn, a painful proof of skin damage, is the result of spending too much time working outdoors without wearing protective clothing and sunscreen. Extended overexposure to the sun results in: premature wrinkling, age spots, thinning and dry skin, and 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, tissue growth that leads to blindness, cataracts, and even macular degeneration, which can lead to blindness.

Workplace Safety is Everyone’s Responsibility

Employers are expected to provide worker accommodations for UVR protection and to counsel them on UVR safety just as they are expected to safeguard their employees around any hazardous equipment and conditions in the workplace. 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 clothing protection factor (CPF) designed to provide a high level of protection from UVR
  • Make sure clothing is lightcolored and covers legs and arms
  • Wear a hat with a wide brim that protects face, and has neck flaps
  • Wear 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, sold over the counter, to reduce the burning sensation and swelling and speed up healing
  • Keep hydrated at all times drinking lots of water. For more on how the importance of hydration, check out Drink Up: How to Stay Hydrated and Prevent Dehydration

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