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All about sun safety

Anyone who works outside may be concerned about the effects of sun on their skin. We call this solar radiation. Find out why it’s harmful, along with advice on how to stay safe in the sun. Our guidance is for business owners, managers, workers and health and safety professionals.

What is solar radiation?

Solar radiation is the radiant energy emitted by the sun. The sun emits different kinds of light, some of which we can see and others that are invisible: 

  • visible spectrum – the light that we see 
  • infrared radiation – felt as heat 
  • ultraviolet (UV) radiation – which can damage deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in skin cells and cause burning (sunburn) and skin cancers. 

UV radiation

Exposure to UV can lead to premature ageing, create wrinkles in the skin and cause skin cancer if precautions are not taken, particularly when outside. 

UV cannot be seen or felt (although the effects of exposure can be felt through sunburn, for example). So, workers are often exposed to UV without knowing or considering the hazard. 

There are three types of UV.

  • UVA – has the longest wavelength and is easily transmitted through the atmosphere (95 per cent of UVA reaches the Earth’s surface). UVA can penetrate the dermis (middle layer of our skin) leading to ageing of skin cells, DNA damage and skin cancers. 
  • UVB – has a shorter wavelength and some UVB is absorbed by Earth’s o-zone layer. Only about 5 per cent of UVB reaches the Earth’s surface. UVB reaches the epidermis (outer layer of our skin) which can damage skin cells, cause sunburn and skin cancers. 
  • UVC – also has a shorter wavelength and is the highest energy portion of the UV spectrum. UVC does not reach the Earth’s surface, as it is blocked by the o-zone layer in the atmosphere. People can be exposed to UVC but via artificial sources such as lasers or lamps.

Graphic showing the wavelength for different types of solar radiation. UVC is 110 to 280 nanometres (nm). UVB is 280 to 315 nm. UVA is 315 to 400 nm. Visible light is 400 to 700 nm. Infrared light is above 700 nm.

Solar radiation is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO). It is treated as a definite cause of cancer in humans. UV radiation (encompassing UVA, UVB and UVC) and UV-emitting tanning devices are also classified as definite human carcinogens (Group 1) by IARC. 

The risk of getting skin cancer from sun exposure is well known and widely understood. It is publicised in the media, and we see marketing associated with sunscreens and other sun-protection products generally aimed at consumers in the holiday, sport and leisure markets. In some industry sectors, the risks aren’t acknowledged or managed as well as they could be. More awareness around the topic and the associated risks is required.  There have been myths around how sun damage can occur and about risk factors associated with different climates – even misunderstandings around vitamin D deficiency from a lack of UV exposure. 

There are cultural challenges in some industries, too. For example, a male-dominated culture can exist in the face of certain risks in some parts of the construction sector across the world.            

The reality is that the risks to ordinary holidaymakers, targeted by sun product advertising campaigns, aren’t comparable to the risks faced by millions of outdoor workers. For significant periods of the year, outdoor workers are typically exposed to solar radiation for hours at a time, day in, day out. They may have long-term, chronic solar radiation exposure to particular body parts such as head, neck, arms and hands (legs and torso may be exposed intermittently, too). 

What is artificial UV?

Artificial UV sources are those that are human made. People can also be exposed to these in the workplace.

  • Black-light lamps – UV is emitted from the bulbs that produce mostly UVA and visible light. These bulbs are usually purple coloured and are also found in ‘insect-zapping’ traps.
  • High-pressure xenon and xenon-mercury arc lamps, plasma torches, and welding arcs – used for UV ‘curing’, disinfection, to simulate sunlight and in some car headlights. Plasma torches and welding arcs are particular risks in workplaces. 
  • Mercury-vapour lamps – comprising an inner and outer bulb and sometimes used to light public areas such as gymnasiums or streets. If the outer bulb is broken, then UV exposure can occur.
  • Phototherapy (UV therapy) – used to treat some skin conditions such as psoriasis. UVA and UVB can be used in the treatment. 
  • Sunlamps/sunbeds/tanning beds/booths – exposure depends on the lamps used, and how long and how often a person uses the device. Most of these UV lamps emit UVA and some UVB. 
  • UV lasers – exposures can be harmful if UV lasers are used improperly. Thermal, acoustical and photochemical processes can cause biological damage such as burns and irreversible injuries to the eyes and skin. Exposure does not just need to be direct but can include indirect exposure through beam reflections. 

Fact: people who use tanning beds, devices or booths have a higher risk of skin cancer, including melanoma and squamous and basal cell skin cancers (American Cancer Society