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Occupational exposure: Workers exposed to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun and artificial sources

Underneath shot of lifeguard wearing sunglasses, wide-brimmed hat and long sleeved shirt, looking out into the distance.

Summary

All occupations that are undertaken outdoors will result in exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun. Some occupations, particularly in the manufacturing industry, will be exposed to artificial sources of UVR. Protective measures are advised for workers exposed to UVR in order to minimise potential health risks.

What do I need to know?

Australians are exposed to solar UVR that can reach extreme levels in the summer months. UVR has been classified by the International Agency on Research (IARC) as carcinogenic to humans and skin cancer rates in Australia are among the highest in the world. Outdoor workers experience some of the highest exposures to solar UVR throughout their working lives, especially in the construction, agricultural and manufacturing industries, where the majority of work is undertaken outdoors. In addition, there are potential UVR exposures in the workplace from artificial sources such as welding, germicidal lamps and high intensity lighting. 

What is the possible exposure?

The highest exposure to workers from UVR is from the sun. Some industries have particular occupations where a large number, if not all, tasks are undertaken outdoors. For example, in the agricultural and building construction industries, workers may spend the entire work shift outdoors. The Australian Workplace Exposure Study commissioned by Safe Work Australia identified that 99% of agricultural workers and 86% of construction workers were exposed to solar UVR. The same study concluded that up to 31% of workers in the manufacturing industry were exposed to either solar UVR or artificial UVR from welding.

For unprotected outdoor workers exposure limits for UVR are typically exceeded within 10 minutes in summer for 2 to 3 hours either side of noon when the solar UVR peaks. Even when the UV Index is below 3, sun protection is recommended for outdoor workers, as their daily exposure limits are still likely to be exceeded. For workers out of direct sunlight, they may still be exposed to high UVR levels from indirect and reflected UVR from the surrounding environment, off metals, glass and concrete.

What are the possible health effects?

Exposure to UVR can lead to injuries such as erythema (sunburn), skin blistering and eye damage. These injuries are normally temporary and resolve within a few days to weeks. Long-term health effects, often appearing many years after the damage was done, may include cataracts and skin cancer including melanoma, basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Both BCC and SCC are known as non-melanoma skin cancer. 

In Australia, 2 out of every 3 people will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70, with the majority of skin cancers caused by exposure to solar UVR. Over 2200 Australians die every year from skin cancer. Approximately 200 melanomas and 34 000 non-melanoma skin cancers are diagnosed each year in Australia from UV damage received in the workplace. Other long-term effects of UVR exposure include photo-aging, skin pigmentation changes (e.g. sunspots) and degenerative changes to the eye.

Where can I find advice for protection?

Under Australian workplace health and safety legislation, employers must take steps to protect workers from harmful levels of exposure to UVR. 

In Australia, the Cancer Council and Safe Work Australia provide practical information and advice on implementing good sun protection policies and practices in the workplace. They provide a comprehensive sun protection program that describes various sun protection control measures in the workplace.

The ARPANSA Radiation Protection Standard for Occupational Exposure to Ultraviolet Radiation (2006) (RPS. No. 12) sets exposure limits for occupational exposure to artificial UVR in the workplace and provides best practice guidance on the protection from occupational exposure to artificial sources and solar UVR to minimise workers UVR exposures. 

Further information