Occupational exposure: Workers exposed to ultraviolet radiation

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Summary

All occupations that are undertaken outdoors will result in exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR). 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. Workers are among the highest exposure groups to solar UVR, especially in the construction, agricultural and manufacturing industries, where a large amount of work is undertaken outdoors. In addition, there is potential UVR exposure in the workplace from artificial sources such as arc welding. 

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 their entire work shift outdoors. The Australian Workplace Exposure Study identified that 99 per cent of agricultural workers and 86 per cent of construction workers were exposed to solar UVR. The same study concluded that up to 31 per cent of workers in the manufacturing industry were exposed to either solar UVR or artificial UVR from welding.

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 include cataracts and skin cancer including melanoma, basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). In Australia, 96.1% of all melanoma cases in 2012 were attributable to UVR. This accounts for 11,400 cases and 9.54% of all cancers. This is the world’s second highest percentage, just behind New Zealand. 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?

A number of organisations including the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection and Safe Work Australia have specifically developed advice on the protection of workers from UVR. Cancer Council Australia provide messaging on cancer prevention through SunSmart advice. This advice is applicable in an occupational setting and includes sun protection behaviour and protection measures such as sunscreen, protective clothing and sunglasses for outdoor workers. ARPANSA regulates the use of artificial sources of UVR through the application of Radiation Protection Series No.12 Occupational Exposure to Ultraviolet Radiation to Commonwealth entities that deal with ultraviolet sources.

Further information