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

In this article, we'll look at the risk UV exposure poses and how to minimize it for your employees.

UV Risk by Occupation

For some employers and their employees, UV safety isn’t an issue because most of their work takes place indoors, sheltered from the sun. There are, however, many occupations that involve working in the sun for part or all of the day, including:

  • Lifeguard
  • Construction worker
  • Gardener
  • Landscaper
  • Arborist
  • Horticulturalist (learn about Landscaping and Horticultural Services Safety)
  • Agricultural worker
  • Outdoor recreation worker
  • Fisherman
  • Police officer
  • Military personnel
  • Park ranger
  • Civil engineer
  • Guide
  • Delivery person
All of these and other outdoor workers receive significant exposure to UV radiation (UVR). Whether they are exposed to ultraviolet light during the whole day or only part of it, outdoor workers should take precautions.

Traditionally indoor occupations are not entirely free of UV risk either. Welders who work with specialized lamps and welding arcs, those who work in television studios and on theater 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 are all at risk of UV exposure even while working indoors. Most at-risk, indoor workers should wear the appropriate protective clothing and eyewear. This same level of protection is not usually guaranteed for outdoor workers (find more safety tips for outdoor workers in Summertime Roadwork and Heat Stroke).

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, the range of susceptibility does not exist in eye color. All racial types are equally susceptible to cataract and other environmentally related eye diseases (the eyes are almost always in the direct line of danger. Learn more in this Safety Moment on Eye Protection).

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 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. At work sites with these conditions, UV rays may reach workers' exposed skin from both above and below. The indirect ways that UV rays can reach workers means they are at risk of UV radiation even when it is cloudy or when they are able to work in the shade.

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.

Effects of UVR Exposure in the Workplace

Sunburn, a painful proof of skin damage, is the immediate 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.

How Can You Ensure UV Protection in the Workplace?

Employers and businesses that expect employees to work in environments where they are routinely exposed to solar and other UV sources owe it to their employees to provide UV protection. One measure is to provide outdoor workers with protective items including sun protection hats, sunglasses or safety glasses designed for high UV protection, clothing with a high ultraviolet protection factor (UPF), 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 (for related reading, see Top 10 OSHA Safety Violations You May Have Committed Last Year).

If you are particularly sun sensitive because of your skin 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. 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.

UV Safety Is Everyone’s Responsibility

Employers are expected to provide worker accommodations for UV radiation 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 ultraviolet protection factor (UPF)
  • Make sure clothing is light-colored 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 (find out How to Combat Fogging, the Number One Complaint from Safety Eyewear Users)
  • 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!