Overexposure to solar UV radiation – workplace hazard for the building and construction industry

For many Australians the workplace is a major source of sun exposure. When you think that each of us spend at least 7.5 hours at work a day, those who spend most of their working day outside could potentially be exposed to about 1,875 hours of solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation at work in a year. Meaning that outdoor workers receive the vast majority of their total yearly sun exposure during work hours.

About 23% of all Australian workers are estimated to be exposed to UV radiation at work. Building and construction workers receive some of the highest levels of exposure.

Image courtesy of QLD Health

Image courtesy of QLD Health

Exposure to ‘Class 1 Carcinogens’ in the workplace
UV radiation has been classified as a ‘Class 1 Carcinogen’ – meaning that it causes cancer in humans, just like tobacco, asbestos and alcohol. Overexposure to UV radiation is the most common carcinogen that the majority of Australian workers are exposed to, with over 2 million workers exposed to significant UV radiation.

Exposure to reflective surfaces in the workplace
People, who spend a lot of the working day near reflective surfaces, including water, roofing iron, glass and sand, are exposed to increased UV radiation. In Australia about 46% of workers reported working near reflective surfaces. Tradesmen (including painters, plumbers, carpenters, construction workers and electrical workers) are one occupational group who are more likely to work near reflective surfaces.

Exposure to UV radiation in work vehicles
Workers who spend considerable time in their vehicles can receive significant exposure to UV radiation. This is because plain window glass used for side windows usually only has an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of about 12, which provides only moderate protection. The levels of UV radiation inside a vehicle varies depending on whether the side windows are open or closed, the orientation of the vehicle with respect to the sun and if the windows are tinted. Use of window tinting on vehicles is strongly recommended as it can reduce UV radiation to virtually nil inside the vehicle. Modern laminated windscreens block basically all UV radiation.

Skin cancer risk from cumulative damage
UV radiation related skin damage accumulates over time. The more overexposure to UV radiation a person receives, the higher their risk of developing skin cancer. As outdoor workers spend all or a considerable amount of their day working outdoors, their risk of skin cancer is increased and it is important that sun protection measures are used every day.

Relevance for building and construction workers
In an industry where so much work needs to be completed outside, building and construction workers are exposed to a lot of UV radiation.

Protection on the worksite
Employers have a legal responsibility to protect their workers from ‘foreseeable harms’. As a ‘Class 1 Carcinogen’, UV radiation is a known harm which is ‘foreseeable’. This means that employers have a duty of care to protect their workers from overexposure to UV radiation while they are outdoors. Workers have an equal duty to cover up when asked by the boss. It’s the smart way to go.

For more general information about why and how you can protect yourself and your workers from overexposure to UV radiation have a read of Cancer Council’s ‘Skin cancer and outdoor work – a guide for employers’.

Return to Exposure at work

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Very High

UV observation courtesy of ARPANSA

UV readings from around AUS
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