Sun smart

01 Nov 2019

Summer is coming (thank goodness). We’ve had a few glimpses of golden weather already and it’s a good reminder to start thinking about operating a sun smart workplace.

Many industry workers are exposed to prolonged periods of sun in their workdays during the warmer months. And with the sun as harsh as it is here in New Zealand, it’s important we protect ourselves and our employees from its potentially harmful effects. 

The sun emits ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which is a potential health hazard for workers who operate outdoors. It can cause sunburn, which during the hottest parts of the day can occur in only 10 minutes of exposure and can lead to types of skin cancer. Exposure to UV radiation can also damage the eyes in the form of photokeratitis, cataracts, pterygium (red tissue growth over the eye) and eye cancer.

While working outdoors in summer can be great, we need to make sure the risk of overexposure to UV radiation is minimised. The best action you can take is to plan ahead.

Assess the risk

Consider the frequency and length of time workers will be exposed to the sun. This includes environmental aspects like:

  • time of the year (and height of the sun)
  • cloud coverage
  • pollution levels

But also includes things like:

  • whether there are reflective surfaces at the worksite
  • what chemicals the worker will be exposed to

Control the risk

Where possible, elimination is the best course of action. That is, isolating or preventing contact with the sun, for example:

  • moving the worksite indoors or under cover
  • changing reflective surfaces
  • changing work schedules around peak UV hours

Elimination won’t always be possible, so taking steps such as providing protective clothing and hats, eye protection and sunscreen and reducing the amount of UV radiation exposure is a good next step.

Sun safety myths

While Kiwis are well-educated in sun safety, there are still some misconceptions out there:

  • If you can’t feel or see the sun, you can’t get burned: you definitely can still get burned because you can’t see or feel UV radiation (it’s not the same thing as the warmth you feel from the sun). Your skin can burn even if it feels cool.
  • Sunscreen provides enough protection: sunscreen does have limitations as to the level of protection it provides. It must be applied liberally, thoroughly and often as it does wear off, particularly if the worker is sweating or comes into contact with water.
  • If I have never used sun protection before, it’s too late to start now: sun damage slowly adds up over time, so it’s never too late to start protecting yourself.
  • I’m quite tanned so I am already protected against the sun: tan is merely an increase in pigmentation as a result of exposure to the sun. It provides only a very small increase in protection from the sun and regardless of how tanned you are, you should still be protecting yourself as the cell damage caused by the tanning process can lead to skin cancer.

So, it’s time to start thinking ahead and putting steps in place to manage exposure to UV radiation as we head into the glorious Kiwi summer.