Last reviewed 3 July 2018

With summer 2018 well under way, and having already brought heatwave weather conditions, now is a good time for employers to consider how to deal with dangers such as sunburn, skin cancer, dehydration and heat stress, in order to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for their outdoor workers. Vicky Powell considers how the risks can be managed.

Outdoor working — pros and cons

For many workers, being free from the confines of an office and working outdoors, particularly in warm weather, is a welcome perk of certain jobs in the construction, leisure, entertainment, agriculture, sports and horticulture industries. However, the warm summer months pose certain risks to outdoor workers, which need to be adequately managed, just like any other health and safety risk.

Exposure to sunlight should not be viewed as unhealthy per se — it is well known that people need some sunshine to make enough vitamin D to build and maintain strong bones. However, sunlight contains ultraviolet radiation and too much sunlight can result in sunburn. Damage from sunburn can also have serious long-term effects, and frequent exposure to ultraviolet radiation for long periods of time increases the risk of developing skin cancer. Statistically, outdoor workers have higher risks of skin cancer than other workers due to longer periods of exposure and they are considered a high risk group in this regard.

Therefore, it is necessary to achieve a balance between sufficient sunlight and overexposure. It is not possible to give a one size fits all recommendation regarding the “safe” level of sunshine exposure as each individual will be different. Furthermore, skin cancer and sunburn are not the only risks to consider — there is also dehydration and heat stress, for example, both of which can be fatal. The key is to have in place a comprehensive outdoor working policy, able to cater for each individual outdoor worker and the range of potential risks.

Work-related skin cancer — the statistics

In recent years, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has published research offering a detailed picture of the skin cancer burden on those working outdoors in industries as diverse as construction, agriculture and leisure and entertainment.

The study conducted by Imperial College London, led IOSH to highlight the following key findings.

  • Malignant melanoma kills nearly 50 people each year in the UK because of exposure to solar radiation at work, with 240 new cases being registered.

  • Melanoma is the most common cause of cancer among young adults.

  • As many as five people a day on average in the UK are being diagnosed with a form of skin cancer contracted at work.

  • In the UK, it is estimated that 5.5 million people have been exposed to solar radiation through their work.

A separate study, conducted by the University of Nottingham, examined work attitudes to sun safety in the construction sector, and warned of a “macho culture” in some parts of the industry as well as misconceptions about the threat of ultraviolet radiation in climates like the UK’s. For example, the researchers said, cloud cover does not completely protect against solar radiation, contrary to what some people think.

The study found that two-thirds of construction workers outside for an average of nearly seven hours a day thought they were not at risk from ultraviolet radiation or were unsure if they were. In addition, more than half (59%) of those questioned by researchers reported having sunburn — a major contributor to skin cancer — at least once in the last year.

Formulating a sun protection policy

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says that ultraviolet radiation should be considered an occupational hazard for people who work outdoors.

In its leaflet entitled INDG337 Sun Protection, the safety watchdog notes that people with pale skin are most at risk of skin damage, especially those with fair or red hair, with a lot of freckles or with a family history of skin cancer. People with brown or black skin are at low risk (but people of all skin colours can suffer from overheating and dehydration, see below).

The HSE advises employers to:

  • include sun protection advice in routine health and safety training, informing workers that a tan is not healthy

  • encourage workers to keep covered up during the summer months — especially around midday

  • encourage workers to use sunscreen of at least sun protection factor (SPF) 15

  • encourage workers to take their breaks in the shade, if possible

  • consider scheduling work to minimise exposure

  • keep workers informed about the dangers of sun exposure

  • encourage workers to check their skin regularly for unusual spots or moles that change and to seek prompt medical advice promptly if concerned.

For employees, the HSE highlights its sun protection six-point code as follows, advising workers to:

  • keep their tops on since clothing forms a barrier to the sun’s harmful rays

  • wear hats with brims or flaps to cover the back of necks and ears

  • stay in the shade, whenever possible, but especially at lunchtime

  • use a high factor sunscreen of at least factor SPF 15 on exposed skin

  • drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration

  • check their skin regularly for unusual spots or moles which may have changed.

Dehydration and heat stress

Sunburn and skin cancers are not the only risks associated with outdoor work. Two other issues to consider are dehydration and heat stress. Symptoms of dehydration in outdoor workers might include indicators such as fatigue, poor concentration, fainting or headaches. In the worst-case scenario however, dehydration and heat stress can kill, as reported in the July 2013 case of three soldiers who died following a training exercise in the Brecon Beacons on an extremely hot day. The role of personal protective equipment is a particular factor to consider in relation to heat stress. On a hot day, someone wearing protective clothing and performing heavy work in hot and humid conditions could be at increased risk of heat stress. Ultimately, if the body is gaining more heat than it can lose, the deep body temperature will continue to rise. Eventually it reaches a point when the body’s control mechanism itself starts to fail.

The HSE says that when carrying out a heat stress risk assessment, the major factors to consider are:

  • the work rate, since the harder someone works, the greater the body heat generated

  • the working climate, including air temperature, humidity, air movement and heat sources

  • worker clothing and respiratory protective equipment which may impair the efficiency of sweating and other means of temperature regulation

  • the worker’s age, build and medical factors, which may affect an individual’s tolerance.

The HSE warns that dehydration can seriously affect an employee's ability to function safely when under thermal stress. However, the effects of dehydration can be minimised in heat stress situations by encouraging employees to frequently drink cool water to compensate for losses due to sweating. Water points and rest areas, the safety watchdog says, should be sited in the shade.

Weather statistics show growing trends towards warmer winters, changing rainfall patterns and hotter summers in the UK, and balmy summer days will doubtless always be enjoyed by outdoor workers as a pleasant change from the chill and rains of winter. With effective health and safety planning, outdoor workers are sure to enjoy a pleasant, but also, healthy and safe summer outdoor working environment.

Comment from David Price, Health Assured CEO and wellbeing expert

When discussing the negatives effects of extreme heat, we tend to think of its impact on our physical health. However, it can also affect people who are dealing with a mental illness and in some cases aggravate their existing mental conditions, not least because the rising temperatures add to the existing stresses of their daily life.

First, the increased night-time temperature can lead to insufficient sleep, which can then give rise to stress and presenteeism at work as people struggle through their working day exhausted and unable to concentrate.

Second, those who use certain anti-depressants are particularly vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat as the medication can prevent the area in your brain that regulates heat response from knowing you’re overheating.