When consturction industry insiders are asked to give examples of personal protective equipment (PPE), the list usually includes a hard hat, eye protection, hearing protection, gloves and steel-toed shoes or boots. As the temperature in-creases and days are longer and sunnier, it may be helpful to expand what is considered a PPE. With rates of all types of skin cancers soaring, the time has come to include a basic sunscreen and sunglasses as PPE and include sun safety education in the construction industry’s basic safety programs. Some states have crafted laws that address this issue. New York’s “Sun Safety Law” deals more with the danger inherent in the sun itself and less with the effects of summer heat.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States with more than 1 million new cases diagnosed each year. Men over 50 are about twice as likely as women to be diagnosed with some type of skin cancer, and the majority of those diagnosed with melanoma are white males. Since the majority of individuals found at any job site are men, this is a startling statistic. Men are at higher risk for several reasons:
• Men spend more hours in the sun than women.
• Men typically have less hair to cover their ears and scalp. They also are more likely to develop cancers on the back, chest and shoulders, as they are more likely to be exposed.
• Men get checked by a doctor less frequently.
• Men are more likely to ignore sun protection procedures.
This combination is especially an issue for those in the construction industry who make their living out in the sun.
Why is the sun so dangerous? The warming rays of the sun are made up of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Humans and their skin are most affected by two of these rays: UVA and UVB. They are what damages the skin and increases skin cancer risk. UVB rays are mainly responsi-ble for sunburn and, therefore, skin cancers. UVA rays affect the skin’s deeper layers, causing wrinkling, leathery skin and sagging. New studies are finding that UVA rays also may be responsible for skin cancers. The risk of developing a skin cancer increases with several fac-tors:
• The amount of time spent in the sun over the years
• The sun’s intensity when exposed to it
• Use of sun protection—sunscreen and sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays
• Work surfaces, such as concrete, metal roofing and asphalt, can reflect the sun’s rays and increase the damage.
Since those working in construction have very little influence over any of these factors except for the use of sun protection, this is where the education and change must occur.
The Skin Cancer Foundation states that the most effective way of minimizing the risk of skin cancer is to avoid sun exposure when UV rays are strongest. This usually is during warmer seasons and between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., which typically is when most construction takes place. Since this is impractical, other solutions should be used. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration advises wearing tightly woven clothes to block out sunlight. The color of the fabric also influences sun exposure; darker-colored fabrics are more effective than lighter colors at blocking out UV rays.
Holding the fabric up to the light is an easy test for its ability to block the sun. If you can see through it, the sun can pass through and cause damage to the skin.
Since working at a site in summer is a hot job, thick, dark fabrics usually are not a first choice of workers. To offset those objec-tions, many manufacturers use fabrics that are specially treated with chemical UV absorbers. These help to prevent some penetration of UVA and UVB rays. There also is a laundry additive containing a sunscreen that, when added to a detergent, helps to increase the sun-protective properties of the garment. It can be used on clothing already owned, so it would help to decrease the cost of protection.
Hats also are useful. Unfortunately, baseball caps and hardhats protect only the face and front of the neck but leave the ears and the rest of the neck exposed. Since hardhats are a must at construction sites, the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America began providing cloth flaps that can be attached to a hardhat to protect the back of the neck during the workday.
Sunscreen is another main tool against the sun’s rays. The chemical agent helps prevent UV radiation from reaching the skin. Sunscreens are rated by their sun protection factor (SPF). The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends the use of a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15; however, higher SPF is recommended for those outside for extended periods of time.
Although they work well, there are problems with the use of sunscreens. First, sunscreens must be reapplied every two hours to remain effective. Also, UVA rays don’t cause sunburn, so their damage can go unnoticed. Be sure to use a sunscreen that blocks both types of rays.
Skin cancers are occurring in epidemic proportions, and construction workers are at great risk. Simple changes in outlook can help de-crease this risk.
KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe O’Connor edited this article.