Safe in the sun
Paul Haxell, chair of IOSH’s Construction Group, discusses the importance of protecting workers from UV rays and other carcinogens on site
Any death arising from a workplace incident is onetoo many. Sadly, 35 construction workers died on the job in Britain in 2014-15 according to the Health and Safety Executive – equal to 1.62 deaths per 100,000 workers. That figure, however, represents a fraction of the overall number of work-related deaths occurring in Britain each year. Around 12,000 people lose their lives annually due to health issues developed through work. That total includes 8000 deaths from work-related cancers, about half of which involve workers in the construction industry. In many cases, the cancer diagnosis comes years, if not decades, after the victim was exposed to acarcinogen at work.
Encouragingly, great strides have been made to fill gaps in knowledge on work cancer and there is plenty of good advice out there to help manage the risks. The construction industry is also already doing much of what is required to tackle occupational cancer, but with more businesses in the UK than in any other sector, more can be done to reach all those at potential risk. Some occupational cancer risks are more well-known than others. Solar radiation, for example, is not yet seen as a risk by many within the industry, both employers and employees.
In many instances the solution seems to be simply to provide more sunscreen rather than to change working practices. While using high-factor sunscreen is helpful, it should not be relied on as the only barrier to the harmfulrays. Through its No Time to Lose campaign, IOSH is raising awareness of this significant occupational health issue and offering practical support and advice to businesses to help them tackle five of the top risk factors for occupational cancer registrations and deaths – diesel engine exhaust emissions, solar radiation, asbestos, silica dust and shift work.
In the lead up to the summermonths, the Institution published two pieces of new research which aimed to shed new light on the cancer risks that exposure to solar radiation can pose to workers. IOSH-commissioned research conducted by Imperial College London found that malignant melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer – kills nearly 50 people each year in the UK because of exposure to solar radiation at work, with 240 new cases being registered annually. This does not include the 1500 non-melanoma skin cancer cases caused by work each year.
A second IOSH-commissioned study by the University of Nottingham also reported a lack of awareness of the risks of solar radiation in the construction industry.
Researchers discovered that 70 per cent of construction workers had never had any sort of training on the risks of working in the sun. The study also found that two-thirds of construction workers who spent an average of nearly seven hours a day outside on the job thought they were not at risk, or were unsure if they were. Nearly six out of ten of those surveyed also stated that they had developed sunburn – a major contributor to skin cancer – at least once in the last year. Researchers told of a ‘macho culture’ in some parts of the industry and misconceptions about the threat of UV rays in climates like the UK’s – cloud cover does not give total protection from solar radiation.
Experience also shows that the availability of provisions to protect construction workers from the sun can fluctuate with the weather, with people not thinking to take precautions on a cloudy day. Research shows, however, that up to 80 per cent of the sun’s harmful UV rays can still get through a cloudy sky. The findings led IOSH to urge businesses to develop sun safety strategies that include elements such as regular updates on the UV index from weather forecasts, minimising sun exposure in the middle of the day and asking employees to wear long-sleeved, loose-fitting tops and trousers.
There is, however, plenty of good work going on across the world within the construction sector to limit workers’ exposure to solar radiation, including a number of measures which are not currently employed in the UK.IOSH representatives visited the Asia-Pacific region earlier this year and saw at first-hand examples of measures to reduce solar radiation exposure in action.
In Hong Kong, for example, it is mandatory for wide brim hats to be worn on social housing construction sites. Most workers in construction in Hong Kong and Singapore also have special covers which go over hard hats and provide protection to the neck area. The hat cover is also common in South Africa as an accessory to the current hard hats we have in the UK, however, they are rare here.
Attitudes towards the use of clothing on a sunny day also seemed to differ. The stereotype of a UK construction worker on a summer’s day has traditionally been of a shirtless man exposed to the sun’s rays. While on the whole things are different in reality, in countries with warmer climates you will often find that operatives tend to cover themselves completely as it actually keeps them cooler in the really hot temperatures. The downside with this is it can create a new problem with material liable to be drawn into machinery and a reduction in peripheral vision on site.
The reduction of risk in direct sunlight is not as commonly considered in the UK as in Asia. In Singapore and Hong Kong they provide shaded coolingstations with fans and fridges filled with free cold water. In really hot countries, walkways on sites are also covered. In an attempt to increase people’s knowledge of the risks posed by the sun’s rays, IOSH is publicising the internationally recognised UV index through No Time to Lose to make it easier for people to take adequate precautions to prevent skin damage from solar radiation.
IOSH recently outlined the No Time to Lose campaign to Ministers and resulted in it receiving the backing of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Occupational Safety and Health at Westminster. More than 100 leading businesses have also given the initiative their support to the campaign to date, including major construction companies like Laing O’Rourke, Morgan Sindall and Willmott Dixon.
Paul Haxell is chair of IOSH’s Construction Group. IOSH is the Chartered body for health and safety professionals. With more than 44,000 members in 120 countries, it is the world’s biggest professional health and safety organisation. It sets standards, and supports, develops and connects its members with resources, guidance, events and training. It is the voice of the profession, and campaigns on issues that affect millions of working people.
For more details about the campaign, and to access free resources, visit www.notimetolose.org.uk.
You can also follow @_NTTL or search the hashtag #IOSHsunsafe on Twitter for extra information.