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Protecting outdoor workers

Understanding the risks of sun exposure

Date posted
07 May 2024
Saeed Ahmadi
Estimated reading time
3 minute read

To mark Sun Awareness Week (6-12 May 2024), IOSH’s Saeed Ahmadi looks at solar radiation and how occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals can help.

Are you aware that spending long hours working under the sun can pose serious health risks? Recent findings from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) shed light on the alarming impact of occupational exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) on the incidence of non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) among outdoor workers.

The WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified solar UVR as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), highlighting the need to address occupational UVR exposure as a critical public health concern.

Recognising the scope of the issue

The number of NMSC deaths attributable to occupational exposure to UVR almost doubled between 2000 and 2019. According to the WHO/ILO joint estimates, approximately 1.6 billion workers worldwide were exposed to UVR in 2019, constituting a significant portion of the global working-age population. Shockingly, this exposure led to an estimated 18,960 deaths and half a million disability-adjusted life years from NMSC in the same year alone.

Alarmingly, estimates demonstrate that the cancer burden attributable to occupational exposure to UVR was the third largest of the occupational carcinogens in terms of the number of deaths in 2016 – with 17,936 fatalities, behind occupational exposures to asbestos (209,481 deaths), and to silica (42,258 deaths).

This cancer burden was higher among people in Africa, the Americas, and the Western Pacific region, and the burden was also higher among men and people of middle to older working age. In 2019, the regional proportion of the population exposed to UVR was largest in Africa (33 per cent) and South-East Asia (32.3 per cent) and lowest in Europe (18.5 per cent).

Europe needs to pay attention

While Europe historically had a lower proportion of its population exposed to UVR in comparison to other regions, recent data from the WHO and the ILO paints a concerning picture. Despite efforts to reduce exposure proportions globally, Europe stands out as the region where the proportion of UVR exposure has increased between 2000 and 2019 and this upward trend demands intervention.

Call to action

Duty holders and OSH professionals should start by enforcing regulations that aim to limit exposure to UVR in workplaces. This involves:

  • Providing rest areas and adjusting work schedules to prevent exposure to UVR.
  • Giving workers training and protective clothing like brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts and trousers, along with sunscreen, is essential for minimising UVR exposure.
  • Regular screening programs for detection of skin cancer should be offered by occupational health services especially for those at higher risk due to prolonged sun exposure.

Nevertheless, it’s important to strike a balance between risks and benefits while implementing measures, recognising that some UVR exposure can be beneficial while prioritising worker safety. These proactive measures are key in protecting workers' health and reducing the occurrence of NMSC related illnesses and deaths.


  • Pega , F ., et al. (2023) “ Global, regional and national burdens of non-melanoma skin cancer attributable to occupational exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation for 183 countries, 2000–2019: A systematic analysis from the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injury”. Available at :

Last updated: 13 May 2024

Saeed Ahmadi

Job role
OSH Content Developer


  • Environment and climate


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  • Protecting workers from climate change
  • The impacts of climate change on OSH
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