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Summer is here, and as COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift, many businesses and workplaces across the country are getting back to work. For many workers, such as patio servers, day camp leaders, and campground staff, that means working outside and enjoying the weather. These workers will join many other occupations whose work exposes them to the sun, including agricultural workers, fish harvesters, landscapers, and drivers, as well as oilfield and construction workers.
One of the most common health hazards to outdoor workers is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. With the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer, the ability to filter out harmful UV rays decreases and exposure to ultraviolet radiation, especially UVB increases. Ultraviolet radiation absorbed by our skin’s living cells damages sensitive substances that affect its growth and appearance, which can lead to sunburn, accelerated skin aging, skin cancer, cataracts, and other eye diseases.
The risk to skin
Sunburn – The familiar sunburn is usually the first indicator of overexposure to the sun’s rays. The reaction isn’t always immediate, but sunburned skin can turn bright red in colour within 15-20 hours. Brief and intense exposure can have different short-term effects on the person depending on their skin type and conditioning, and long-term exposure has been linked to serious forms of skin cancer.
Increased rate of skin aging – Prolonged and repeated exposure to the sun’s rays can damage the skin in ways similar to the aging process. Skin loses its elasticity and develops blemishes, freckles, and wrinkles. When this exposure is prolonged over years, the damage becomes irreversible.
Skin cancer – If unprotected exposure to sunlight continues for several years, damaged skin has an increased chance of developing skin cancer. High levels of long-term exposure, such as working outdoors, is more often associated with squamous cell tumours. This type of skin cancer tends to develop where maximum exposure to radiation occurs - forehead, cheeks, nose, lower lip, and tops of the ears. If caught in time, this type of cancer can be removed with a good chance of total cure.
Remind workers to examine their skin regularly for any unusual changes, and to see a doctor for anything that looks suspicious like new moles with abnormal characteristics.
Exposure to UV radiation is a concern for people who work under the sun. Through awareness of the hazards and by taking measures to prevent exposure to sunlight, the risks can be reduced.
Reduce exposure – If possible, avoid scheduling work in direct sunlight between 11:00 am and 4:00 pm, when the sun’s rays are at their strongest. When scheduling work outside those hours isn’t feasible, set up shade structures or use umbrellas, buildings, trees, or canopies to shield against direct sunshine. Rotate workers between site locations to help reduce UV exposure and encourage breaks in areas where workers can cool down and have access to water. Remember that workers can get sunburned on a cloudy day and exposure may increase with UV rays reflecting off surfaces such as water, sand, snow, or pavement.
Wear protective clothing and eyewear – Wide brim hats, helmets, and clothes made from tightly woven fabrics, such as denim, can help protect workers from ultraviolet radiation. Long-sleeved shirts and pants may not be comfortable in extremely hot weather, but they do help protect the skin. Keep in mind that some fabrics, like cotton, are less effective when they get wet. To protect the eyes and the surrounding sensitive skin, look for wrap-around sunglasses that absorb both UVA and UVB radiation.
Use sunscreen – Follow the instructions on the label and always check the expiry date. Apply plenty of waterproof sunscreen 20 minutes before working in the sun. The sunscreen should have a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30, and both UVA and UVB protection. Re-apply sunscreen every two hours, or as directed on the label, and more frequently if you are sweating. Note that sunscreens are not intended to extend your time in the sun, but to reduce the effects of UV rays when you are in the sun.
By reducing the amount and intensity of sun exposure, workplaces can minimize the risks of UV radiation to protect their workers. Enjoying the warm summer air can be a pleasant part of some jobs, but it’s important that workers understand the risks and employers control the hazards so that everyone can be sun-safe and enjoy the season.
Tips and Tools
While the hum of a garden tractor engine may signify that summer has arrived, it can also serve as a reminder of the need to operate it safely.
Like a riding lawn mower, a garden tractor can be suitable for everyday tasks such as cutting grass. But with more features such as hydraulics and power take-off, and a number of possible attachments similar to those in full-size tractors, garden tractors are more suited for heavy duty jobs. Before you hop on, there are a few things you need to know.
Before the work begins:
While you ride:
A garden tractor can be a helpful tool for outdoor workers, but it must be used with proper training. Before you take a ride, take time to learn more about the machine, the terrain, and how to safely complete the task at hand.
Construction workers and those working in jobs with many physical demands may experience injury or pain at a higher rate. Without proper guidance, those who use opioids or other substances to deal with this pain may be at an increased risk for experiencing harms. Research has shown that for workers in fields like construction and the trades, this can sometimes be the case. In fact, current and former construction workers in British Columbia made up the largest share of opioid-overdose deaths between 2007 and 2016.
Fortunately, workplaces can support their workers in several ways. This includes but is not limited to breaking the stigma of substance use, which can prevent workers from seeking help due to fear of losing their jobs.
Listen to our podcast conversation with the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction to learn more about the use of opioids, cannabis and alcohol on the jobsite; the challenges faced by workers and employers; and how workplaces can support their employees’ health and safety.
CCOHS releases new podcasts each month to help you stay current and informed on workplace health, safety, and well-being in Canada.
New Podcast: Supporting Workers After a Traumatic Brain Injury
Brain injuries can be among the most serious of workplace injuries. To get a better understanding of the impacts on employees, employers, and how to support staff as they return to work, listen to this podcast with researchers from the University of Toronto’s Acquired Brain Injury & Society Team.
Podcast runs 18:02 minutes. Listen to the podcast now.
Podcast: Protection from Summer Pests
Unpleasant encounters with ticks and mosquitos can lead to diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus. This episode provides helpful information outdoor workers can use to protect themselves from these pesky summer pests.
The podcast runs 4:49 minutes. Listen to the podcast now.
The health and safety of all workers should be a priority for employers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether they are working onsite, at home, or plan on returning to work.
To support managers, supervisors, and health and safety committees in keeping their workers protected, CCOHS has developed a free online course on COVID-19 risk assessment and safety plans. These plans outline the steps to reduce exposure; procedures to monitor exposure and health; and what to do if someone reports or shows signs or symptoms of infection.
Learn about both work and personal factors to consider when assessing and preventing the risk of exposure, reviewing a safety plan to ensure it is effective, and keeping up to date with current COVID-19 guidelines.
Take the course for free: COVID-19 Workplace Risk Assessment and Safety Plan
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Other free pandemic courses and resources from CCOHS:
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The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.
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