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The sun and warm weather is a welcome sight for most people, but it poses some serious risks to outdoor workers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, environmental heat exposure was a factor in 37 work-related deaths and 2,830 nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses in 2015. Though hot work areas can also be indoors, the sun is one of the key causes of injuries and illnesses in outdoor work environments.

Who Is at Risk?

Anyone who works outdoors is at risk for a variety of sun-related illnesses and injuries. Of course, workers in some industries spend more time in the sun than others. Those particularly at risk include:

  • Construction workers
  • Agriculture workers
  • Oil and gas well operators
  • Landscapers
  • Courier service drivers
  • Mail carriers

But people who only work outside on occasion are at risk, too. It only takes a few hours in the sun to end up with a nasty sunburn or heat-related illness.

Sun Exposure Hazards (And What to Do About Them)

When talking about sun-related hazards, bright red sunburns are probably what come to mind first. But the truth is that the sun can cause a lot more damage than many people realize. That’s why we’re breaking all the hazards down for you and offering some tips on how to deal with them.

1. Sunburns

Sunburns are perhaps the most common ailment related to sun exposure. They reduce the skin's ability to release excess heat and can contribute to heat-related illnesses like heat stroke. Even a mild reddening of the skin is a sign of damage, and it could progress as far as blistering and peeling.

Employees who work outdoors with concrete and metal must be especially careful. These materials are reflective and can significantly increase a worker’s overall sun exposure.

How to Handle It

Apply and reapply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 (ideally 30) on a regular basis.

Avoid working in the sun during the hottest time of day (typically between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.) and always wear a hat to protect your head and face. Loose-fitting clothing can also help keep workers cool and protect the skin from burns.

Where possible, cover bright or shiny surfaces to minimize sun reflection.

2. Eye Irritation

Workers often underestimate the impact UV rays can have on their eyes. Exposure to the sun for long periods can result in allergic conjunctivitis, which is characterized by red, swollen eyes that may be itchy or feel otherwise irritated.

How to Handle It

Wear sunglasses or wide-brimmed hats as much as possible to reduce the amount of direct sun that your eyes are exposed to.

If you wear safety glasses while on the job, opt for ones with UV protection.

3. Cataracts

Cataracts is just one of several eye diseases that can result from excessive exposure to the sun, and workers who spend a lot of time outdoors have a slightly increased risk of developing it. It happens when the normally clear lens of the eye becomes cloudy or opaque, obscuring an individual’s vision.

How to Handle It

Minimize the time spent in direct sunlight and ensure that you protect your eyes with a hat brim and sunglasses or safety glasses with good protection from both UVA and UVB rays (see Goggles vs. Glasses: Which Is the Right Safety Eyewear for Your Job? for related advice).

4. Skin Cancer

The statistics are enough to worry anyone: outdoor workers are up to 3.5 times more likely than indoor workers to develop skin cancer. Some workers are more at risk than others, including those with fair or freckled skin that doesn’t tan, those with red or fair hair and light colored eyes, and those with a large number of moles (50 or more).

How to Handle It

Apply sunscreen regularly, ensuring that the SPF is appropriate for the level of protection required. Sunscreens that contain vitamin E and aloe help soothe skin, in addition to protecting it from harmful, cancer-causing UV rays.

Try to take frequent breaks in the shade and wear hats to protect the top of the head, ears, and other places that sunscreen isn’t easily applied.

And remember: it’s particularly important for those who work outside on a daily basis to do regular skin checks. Look for new growths, sores that don’t seem to heal, or moles that have changed. If you find anything of concern, bring it to the attention of your doctor. If you can remember the ABCs, you can also remember the signs of melanoma:

  • A is for asymmetrical: Look for moles that are an irregular shape or have two parts that look different
  • B is for border: Look for borders that are irregular or jagged
  • C is for color: Look for uneven coloring on moles
  • D is for diameter: Pay special attention to moles that are larger than the size of a pea or the eraser on the end of a pencil
  • E is for evolving: Look for changes over the course of weeks or months

5. Heat-Related Illness

Heat-related illnesses run the gamut from mild heat stress symptoms like headaches, to severe, life-threatening heat stroke. Heavy physical exertion on a hot day – with or without sun – is all it takes to bring on heat stress.

How to Handle It

Take precautions appropriate to the temperature. Drink cool water regularly to stay hydrated and rest in a cool, shady area away from the sun’s bright rays (learn more about How to Prevent Dehydration on the Job). Adjust work activities to avoid hard labor when the sun is at its hottest.

Conclusion

Training is one of the best ways to increase employee awareness about this often-overlooked issue. Exposure to the sun might not seem like a high priority issue on a busy job site, but it’s a critical part of ensuring the health and safety of outdoor workers.