Skin Protection for Outdoor Workers

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Nearly 5 million people are treated for skin cancer every year. Many of these people are outdoor workers. There are several reasons that outdoor workers get skin cancer:

  • They often spend long hours in the sun.
  • They work around materials that reflect sunlight. This includes water, concrete, or metal.
  • It’s easy to forget about sun safety at a busy work site.

Path to improved health

If you spend a lot of time outside at work, you can take steps to prevent getting skin cancer. There are steps your employer can take too. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) requires employers to do everything they can to minimize risk of harm to their employees. This includes protecting them from sun exposure. Here are ways you and your employer can help prevent skin cancer.

Wear protective gear

When you’re working outside, there are a variety of ways you can cover up your skin to protect it.

  • Wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Make sure the fabric is tightly woven and light can’t pass through it.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat. The brim should be at least 3 inches wide, or enough to shade your entire face, ears, and the back of your neck.
  • Protect your neck. If you’ll be bending over a lot, wear a hat that has a flap in the back that will protect your neck. Wearing a collared shirt helps, too.
  • Wear sunglasses. Choose a pair that filters UV rays.

Wear sunscreen

Your sunscreen should be broad-spectrum, SPF 15 or higher, and water-resistant. Make sure you cover any surface that isn’t covered by clothing. This includes your face, neck, ears, arms, and back of the hands. Reapply it every 2 hours. If you are sweating freely, reapply it more often.

Grab some shade

If you can, work in an area that has shade. Take breaks and eat lunch in the shady area. If there isn’t a shady area at your work site, make one. Set up a tent or shelter, preferably on grass. Try to cover bright or shiny surfaces to reduce the amount of sunlight that is reflected.

Shift your schedule

Try to alter your schedule to match the weather. UV rays are strongest:

  • in the middle of the day
  • during the summer
  • near the equator
  • at high altitudes.

If you have control over when the work is done, schedule outdoor work for early morning or late afternoon. Try not to do it in the middle of the summer. Also keep in mind that snow reflects UV rays, too. Working outside in the mountains in winter can be just as dangerous as working outside during the summer.

Things to consider

Overexposure to UV rays can be very dangerous to your health. Too much exposure can lead to:

  • Skin cancer. Most skin cancers are caused by overexposure to UV rays. Some kinds are fairly easy to treat. But others can spread and even be deadly.
  • Skin changes. UV rays can cause spots or moles to form on your skin. Over time, these can develop into cancer.
  • Eye problems. Long-term exposure to UV rays can damage the tissue in your eyes. This can lead to cataracts or macular degeneration.
  • Weakened immune system. UV rays can weaken your natural defenses and suppress your immune system.
  • Early aging. Time in the sun makes your skin age faster than normal. Signs of this include wrinkled, tight, or leathery skin.

Take every step you can to protect yourself from UV rays when you’re working outdoors.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know what SPF sunscreen to use?
  • Is any amount of sun exposure good for me?
  • How do I know if a skin spot, such as a mole, is abnormal?
  • I have darker skin. Do I still need to protect it from the sun?
  • How much sun exposure can lead to problems?