Sunlight is ultraviolet radiation - a serious risk for many Australian workers. The Australian sun can be very dangerous, and unfortunately, Australians have a very high risk of developing skin cancers. For outdoor workers, this is a very real and serious occupational health and safety issue.
Many outdoor workers are exposed to dangerous levels of ultraviolet radiation, sometimes over many years. If not detected early enough, sun damage can lead to fatal cancers. The problem in Victoria is very serious. According to the Cancer Council Victoria, Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of melanoma in the world. More than 10,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma in Australia every year. Melanoma of the skin is the fourth most common cancer in both men and women. It accounts for 10 per cent of all cancer diagnoses. One in 19 Australians will be diagnosed with melanoma before age 85, and it is the most common type of cancer in young Australians aged 15 to 44 (20 per cent of all cases)
The National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance: Exposure to direct sunlight and the provision of sun exposure controls in Australian workplaces report undertaken by Safe Work Australia in 2010 focused on the exposure of Australian workers to direct sunlight and the control measures that were provided in workplaces that eliminate, reduce or control worker exposure to direct sunlight. The aims of this report were to describe patterns of exposure to direct sunlight in conjunction with patterns of direct sunlight control provision with respect to industry, occupation and other relevant demographic and employment variables, and; to make recommendations, where possible, for the development of OHS. The report estimated that there were approximately 200 melanomas and 34,000 non melanoma skin cancers per year caused by occupational exposures in Australia .In an article published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health in February 2014, Australian researchers from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research found that fewer than ten per cent of the more than two million Australian workers exposed to solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) are fully protected by sunscreen, protective clothing and hats, and working in the shade.
Further, it found workers under the age of 35 were the least likely to use all four methods of sun protection. While almost 95 per cent used at least one form of protection for at least half of the time they worked outdoors - this is not enough to ensure they are not at risk.(Renee Carey, et al: Occupational exposure to solar radiation in Australia: who is exposed and what protection do they use? Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, Volume 38, Issue 1, February 2014.)
(See More information on UV Radiation - below)
Action Plan for OHS Reps
Control measures should be based on an assessment of the UV exposure and implemented in consultation with Union Health and Safety Representatives. Victorian Trades Hall Council has worked with SunSmart to develop this Risk Assessment tool you can use in your workplace. The control strategy should give priority to Engineering, Administrative and Procedural measures. Personal protective measures should be used as a supplement to other control measures or where jointly agreed. Consultation with reps and workers is essential in choosing clothing which is appropriate. Employers should ensure that exposure to UV is reduced by implementing the following control strategies: Once the assessment is completed the identified risks must be controlled. Often a combination of risk control measures may be needed to address the risk factors. These controls can be grouped in the following way:
Can the hazard be eliminated? This is not usually possible, and as it is difficult (or impossible) to eliminate UV radiation, other control measures are needed. Can the work process, or tasks be eliminated?
Engineering controls mean changing the type of equipment or tools used. For example:
- Shade structures over outdoor work areas, such as loading bays.
- Toll booths to shelter car park attendants.
Reorganisation of work practices to reduce exposure, and developing measures to ensure a safe system of work. Here are some examples of keeping workers out of the sun/reducing their exposure:
- An outdoor worker/gardener's administrative or office duties can be performed during the high UV risk hours of 10am to 2pm (11am to 3pm during daylight saving hours)
- Pedestrian transit routes can be rerouted to take advantage of natural shade provided by buildings.
Make sure the employer develops a written sun protection policy in consultation with reps and workers. Protection from the sun must be an integral and permanent feature of your work practice.
Appropriate clothing and personal protective equipment
Personal protective equipment is sometimes the most practical way to control UV, however these should only be used once the other controls have been implemented. The PPE should be provided by the employer, and this is something which should be negotiated well before the summer season starts. Advice from the ATO is that this is a tax deduction for businesses (reasonable expenditure).
Clothing and hats made from tightly woven fabric are more effective at blocking UV rays. A simple test is to hold the fabric up to a light and note how transparent it is. If you can see through the fabric, it is not effective. However, if in doubt, you can look at the Australian Standard (AS4399:2020) that details what consists of ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) ratings in clothing.
Skin coverage is also an important factor to consider. The Australian Standard (AS4399:2020) recommends maximum coverage of the skin to reduce exposure. For protective clothing to have a UPF rating, it needs to cover a minimum of the upper body (including the torso and 3/4 of upper arms), the lower body or both.
Hats play an important role in sun protective clothing as they protect the head, ears and neck from UV. Visors or caps that don't cover the head, ears and neck are not effective measures for protection. The Australian Standard (AS4399:2020) outlines brim widths and materials for hats that meet a UPF rating.
When control measures have been implemented a time frame is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of the control. The risk assessment and control plans should be kept for future reference. The highest level of protection is when ALL sun protection measures are put into place.
Victorian Trades Hall Council has also developed a poster to remind workers to check the UV index. Click on the link to download a full size PDF.
Assessing UV Exposure in the Workplace
As UV radiation exposure varies between places where work is performed and between occupational groups in each workplace, an exposure assessment should be carried out for each workplace and occupational group. Such an assessment should include:
- Jobs/tasks (including breaks), which in which workers are exposed to UV radiation.
- The time of day tasks are carried out and how often the tasks are performed.
- The shade provided by the physical environment in which work is carried out.
- Reflective surfaces which increase exposure, eg water or unpainted corrugated steel or aluminum roofing, that are part of the environment in which the work is carried out.
- Potential photosensitising agents in the workplace or associated with the work, eg some drugs, some industrial chemicals and some plants.
Exposures should be assessed regularly. Assessments should be conducted whenever there are changes in a work procedure or tasks which may lead to greater UV radiation exposure.
Training and Education
Training for workers exposed to UV radiation should be on-going and include induction of new workers. The object of training and education should include increasing recognition of the health effects of solar and other UV radiation, the promotion of safe working procedures, and the use of PPE and sunscreen, consistent with the control strategy outlined above.
The Cancer Council's SunSmart division has recommended companies develop a 'UV policy' as part of their sun protection programs - and to ensure they are complying with their general duty of care under the OHS Act. The Council estimates that in Australia approximately 200 melanomas and 34,000 non-melanoma skin cancers per year are due to occupational exposure to UV. SunSmart launched guidelines in August 2013 on how to develop a workplace UV protection program and sun protection policy. Skin cancer and outdoor work: a guide for employers provides information about control measures, how to address sun protection in workplaces and evaluate compliance. SunSmart's sample sun protection policy for workplaces can be used as a basis for organisations that are developing policies. The guide, sample policies and more, can be downloaded from the Protect Your Workers section of the SunSmart website.
More information on UV Radiation
What is Ultraviolet Radiation?
Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is a component of the electromagnetic (EMR) spectrum. All forms of EMR are characterised by wavelength. The unit of measurement of wavelength for ultraviolet radiation is the nanometre (nm) which is a 1,000,000,000th of a metre. The UV range is traditionally divided into:
- UV-A = 320 - 400nm - long wave or black light
- UV-B = 285 - 320 nm - middle wave or sunburn radiation - Primary wavelength range causing health hazards
- UV-C=200 - 285 nm - short wave/germicidal radiation/electric arc welding
- "Vacuum" UV=100 - 200nm.
The factors which affect the intensity of solar UV radiation (particularly UV-B and to a lesser extent, UV-A) are:
- Time of day
- How much shade is available
- Season of the year
- Cloud cover
- Whether and how much reflection of light there is
- Closeness to the equator
The greatest intensity of UV from the sun is between the hours of 10.00am and 2.00pm (11.00am and 3.00pm daylight saving time.) About 65% of the UV responsible for skin cancers is received between these times.
What are the health effects of Ultraviolet Radiation?
|Radiation burn (sunburn)
|Premature ageing of the skin
|Photosensitisation of the skin
|Damage to the retina of the eye
|Cataracts of the eye
Two out of every three Australians living to the age of 75 years can expect to develop some type of skin cancer. Four percent of cancer deaths in Australia are from skin cancer.There are three main types of skin cancer in Australia:
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC):
Most common but least dangerous. Small, round or flattened lumps which are red, pale or pearly in colour and may have blood vessels over the surface.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC):
Less common, but more dangerous than BCC. Characterised by scaling, red areas that may bleed easily and ulcerate, looking like an unhealing sore.
Melanoma: Rarest, but most dangerous skin cancer. Appears as a new spot, freckle or mole that changes in colour, thickness or shape over months. Can be dark brown to black, red or blue-black or a combination of colours with an irregular outline or shape.
Exposure to photosensitising chemicals or substances can make the effects of solar UV radiation worse. Some examples of photosensitises are coal tar and several of its by-products, (including certain dyes), selected plants and fruits, and a number of medications.
- WorkSafe Victoria Safety Basics webpage Sun Protection where you can download:
Safe Work Australia
- Guide on exposure to solar UVR updated in March 2020, this Guide provides practical guidance for persons conducting a business or undertaking and workers about managing health and safety risks associated with exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR). It contains information on the risks of solar UVR exposure, the control measures which can be used to help eliminate or minimise, so far as is reasonably practicable, a worker's exposure to solar UVR in the workplace and guidance on how to implement a sun protection program at the workplace.
- fact sheet on the risks of solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposure at work
Working in heat web page.
The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA): Ultraviolet Radiation has information on UV and effects.
Guidance, information and policies for employer and workers are available from the Sunsmart website. There is a Workplaces section with information on Working Outdoors and advice to help workplaces minimise employee exposure to ultraviolet radiation.
- Skin Cancer and outdoor work: a work health and safety guide [pdf].
- A one pager Sun protection for outdoor workers [pdf].
- Protect you skin at work brochure [pdf], and
- Skin cancers flyer [pdf] and poster [pdf].
- Policy and best practice support or reference 'Skin Cancer and outdoor work: A guide for employers'.
- From the Cancer Council: Occupational exposure to UV radiation: Compensation claims paid in Australia, 2000-2009 [pdf].This report highlights, to employers and others, the risks of a compensation claim and provides scope for implementing policy and procedures to protect workers from overexposure. It looks at statistics from SafeWork Australia on the number and cost of compensation claims paid in Australia and outlines some real case examples of successful claims. The report is aimed at employers and OHS representatives looking to develop, improve or review their sun protection policy for outdoor workers.
- From SafeWork NSW: UV Radiation 'The Facts'
- The Australian Taxation Office has recognised the growing importance of sun protection while at work and allows tax deductions for the provision of sun protection for both individual workers and businesses. This depends on what type of work you do. Go to the ATO website and check out whether you may be able to claim (check out the 'Deductions' information).
The UK's Health & Safety Executive mini-website provides outdoor workers with the latest information and resources to assist in reducing exposure to UV radiation in sunlight.
Updated November 2023
Last amended May 2020