Protecting Workers from the Sun

construction workers in the sun

Employers can help prevent skin cancer in their companies by educating workers on its risks and how to prevent it.

Working outside during nice weather can be exhilarating, which is why many workers choose construction as a career. However, those who work outside should be aware that unprotected exposure to the sun can cause skin cancer and eye damage.

Sunlight contains ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which causes premature aging of the skin, wrinkles, cataracts, and skin cancer. The amount of damage from UV exposure depends on the strength of the light, the length of exposure, and whether the skin is protected. There are no safe UV rays or safe suntans.

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Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. Don’t take this statement lightly – skin cancer is real cancer and it can be as serious as any other cancer if not treated early. One in five Americans will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetime and on average one person dies from skin cancer every hour. If you don’t think it is dangerous, think again.

Sun exposure at any age can cause skin cancer. Be especially careful in the sun if you burn easily, spend a lot of time outdoors, or have any of the following physical features:

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  • Numerous, irregular, or large moles.
  • Freckles
  • Fair skin
  • Blond, red, or light brown hair.

Even people who tan easily or have darker skin tones are susceptible to skin damage. Unfortunately, darker pigmentation makes it more difficult to observe the signs of skin damage at an early stage. According to a recent study by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, while Caucasians have a higher incidence of melanoma, due to delayed diagnosis in non-whites, the survival rate is significantly lower. More emphasis is needed for melanoma screening and awareness in non-white populations.

Although tattoo ink will not contribute to skin damage it has a tenancy to hide moles, red patches, growths, and other signs of skin cancer.

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Types of Skin Cancer

All skin cancer is serious and should be treated promptly. The different types of skin cancer are:

Melanoma is the most dangerous because it is more likely to spread to the lymph nodes or metastasize to other parts of the body. Although, melanoma accounts for 2 percent of all skin cancer cases, it also is responsible for most skin cancer deaths.

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Basil cell carcinoma if the most common type of skin cancer and tends to occur in areas of the skin that receive the most exposure to the sun’s UV rays. It is rare for it to spread, or metastasize in other parts of the body, but this could happen if left untreated.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer. It affects the outermost layer of skin in areas which have been exposed to the sun such as forehead, face, ears, neck, and back of the hand, but it may be found elsewhere. Although uncommon, it is more likely to spread than basal cell carcinoma.

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Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare but aggressive form of skin cancer. It is more commonly found in areas exposed to the sun such as the face and scalp. This type of skin cancer may metastasize to the brain, bones, liver, or lungs.


It’s important for workers to examine their bodies monthly because skin cancers detected early can almost always be cured. The most important warning sign is a spot on the skin that is changing in size, shape, or color during a period of 1 month to 1 or 2 years.

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Skin cancers often take the following forms:

  • Pale, wax-like, pearly nodules
  • Red, scaly, sharply outlined patches
  • Sores that don’t heal
  • Small, mole-like growths – melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.

Self-examinations should be conducted in a well-lit room and in front of a mirror. Use a hand mirror or ask a loved one to examine areas that are difficult to see.
It is important to remember melanoma is often found on parts of the body that are not exposed to UV light from the sun or tanning beds. For example, melanoma can develop under fingernails, on the scalp, soles of the feet, between toes, ears, buttocks, and as mentioned before, behind a tattoo.
The American Cancer Society recommends getting regular skin checks preferably by a dermatologist. If a person finds such unusual skin changes, he/she should see a health care professional immediately.


Employers can help prevent skin cancer in their companies by educating workers about skin cancer and how to prevent it. NUCA has a Tool-Box-Talk members can download and OSHA has Quick Tips employers can use to educate workers.

Block Out UV Rays

  • Cover up. Wear tightly-woven clothing that blocks out UV light. Try this test: Place your hand between a single layer of the clothing and a light source. If you can see your hand through the fabric, the garment offers little protection.
  • Use sunscreen. A sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 blocks 93 percent and SPF 30 blocks 97% of UV rays. You want to block both UV-A and UV-B rays to guard against skin cancer. Be sure to follow application directions on the bottle, which generally require reapplying the lotion every 2 hours.
  • Wear a hat. A wide brim hat (not a baseball cap) is ideal because it protects the neck, ears, eyes, forehead, nose, and scalp.
  • Wear UV-absorbent shades. Sunglasses don’t have to be expensive, but they should block 99 to 100 percent of UV-A and UV-B radiation.
  • Limit exposure. UV rays are most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you’re unsure about the sun’s intensity, take the shadow test: If your shadow is shorter than you, the sun’s rays are the day’s strongest.

Additional Steps for Prevention

For more information about preventing, detecting, and treating skin cancer, check out these sources:

NUCA Tool-Box-Talks – Be Careful of the Sun ( is available in English and Spanish.

OSHA has published Quick Tips that includes the above information in English ( and Spanish (

American Cancer Society | 1-800-ACS-2345

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention | 1-888-842-6355

The Skin Cancer Foundation | 1-800-SKIN-490

Protect Your Eyes From the Sun

Most people do not know that ultraviolet (UV) rays from sun exposure can damage the eyes. In fact, long-term unprotected exposure to the sun is cumulative and can lead to cataracts, macular degeneration, or skin cancer around the eyelids.

The only way to protect the eyes from exposure is to wear UV blocking sunglasses. Wearing a brimmed hat will also help by limiting UV rays from hitting the eyes from above or around glasses. This is another good reason to wear hard hats with the brim facing forward when doing construction work.

Most sunglasses will shade the eyes from bright lights but they don’t always offer adequate UV protection. Manufacturers of sunglasses and safety glasses do not always attach a tag or label stating the amount of UV radiation that the lenses will block. When providing safety glasses that will be worn outside always choose glasses with lenses that will filter out 99 to 100 percent of UV-A and UV-B rays. Therefore, it is highly recommended that companies only purchase good quality eye protection that is clearly labeled.

Lastly, take the time to educate employees about the importance of wearing sunglasses because studies show that only about 10% of workers knew that exposure to the sun could damage their vision.

George Kennedy is Vice President of Safety for the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) and is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP).

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