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Sun safety and skin cancer

Workers who are exposed to the sun are at risk of being overexposed to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) – especially in Queensland. Cumulative exposure to UVR can cause sunburn in the short term and can lead to skin cancer and eye damage in the long term.

What’s UVR?

Ultraviolet radiation comes from the sun but can’t be seen or felt. When the ultraviolet (UV) index is three or above it starts to cause skin damage. This is even on cool and cloudy days, because UVR passes through clouds. It can also get through loosely woven clothing and can bounce off reflective surfaces like metal, concrete and water.

What are the risks of UVR?

Overexposure to UVR can cause:

  • sunburn
  • sunspots
  • skin cancer, including:
    • Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) – the most common but least dangerous skin cancer.  A BCC appears as a lump or scaly area. It may be red, pale or pearly in colour or a sore that won't heal.
    • Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) – less common than BCCs and not as dangerous as melanoma but may spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.
    • Melanoma – the most dangerous type of skin cancer. A melanoma appears as a new spot, or an existing spot, freckle or mole that changes and can be anywhere on the body. If left untreated, the cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body. About 1200 Australians die every year from melanoma.

How do I manage the risks?

Because Queensland has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, it’s important to manage sun exposure. Businesses should create a sun safe environment and workers should take measures to protect themselves from UVR.

Workers and management can work together to be sun safe and reduce the risks of skin cancer. A safe place of work benefits everyone. Access more information about how you can create safe work.

For workers

The best way to avoid overexposure to UVR is to stay out of the sun, especially between 10am and 3pm. If you have to be outside, make sure you protect yourself.

Be SunSmart every day

Not all clothing is protective. To protect against UVR, wear clothing that:

  • is dark in colour to inhibit UV light penetration
  • has a close weave fabric to block out UVR
  • has long sleeves or long trousers and a collar.

Choose a fabric with a high ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). The UPF rating is outlined in the Australian/New Zealand Standard 4399:2017. A fabric's UPF rating is based on how much UVR is transmitted through the fabric, for example, 45+ is excellent protection.

Choose a hat that has a close weave and broad brim (10-12 cm) and a flap at the back to shade both the face and back of the neck. If you wear a hardhat, choose one with a flap and/or brim added. Avoid hats lined with white fabric because it will reflect UVR.

A wrap around style conforming to AS/NZS 1067:2003 is best. It will reduce UVR entering the eye from the side of the face.

Check the UV protection rating. Some sunglasses can be labelled with an eye protection factor (EPF). This is a scale from 1 to 10 which indicates how well a lens blocks UVR. If a lens has been tested, it should have an EPF on the label. Sunglasses with an EPF of 9 or 10 provide the best protection.

Safety glasses should be tinted for outdoor use. Note that polarised lenses reduce glare, which is reflected visible light, making it easier to see on a sunny day; but they don’t increase the EPF.

Sunscreen is recommended as the last line of defence, after shade, clothing, hats and sunglasses. When choosing a sunscreen, look for:

  • sun protection factor (SPF) of 30+ or more
  • broad-spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB)
  • water-resistance.

Check the use by date because sunscreen can go off. Store it in a cool place, preferably below 30°c. Keep sunscreen where it’s easily accessible and replace it regularly to avoid deterioration. Note that price is not always an indication of quality. Any broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF30+ rating or more will give good sun protection if it’s applied properly. This means:

  • applying liberally to clean, dry skin at least 20 minutes before going outside, about a teaspoon per limb and half a teaspoon to the face and neck
  • reapplying at least every two hours
  • using zinc cream for lips, ears and nose for extra protection
  • selecting a gel-based or alcohol-based sunscreen when handling tools
  • using a clear lip balm with sunscreen and applying it regularly.

Nearly all skin cancers can be cured if detected and treated early. You often can’t see or feel skin cancers so it’s important that you regularly check, or a medical practitioner regularly checks your skin for changes in shape, colour or size of existing freckles, moles or spots. Cancer Council Queensland has information on how to perform skin self-examinations.

Contact a medical practitioner if you’re concerned about changes to your skin.

For businesses

For employers or persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), it’s your duty to use a risk management approach to protect your workers as outlined in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011

Following a four-step risk management process will help your business meet its responsibilities under work health and safety (WHS) laws.

You should periodically carry out assessments to identify:

  • workers who have a high risk of exposure to UVR
  • situations or work systems that involve high exposure to UVR
  • ongoing local UV forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology.

Exposure to UVR during outdoor jobs depends on a range of factors, including:

  • the location of jobs
  • the time of year and times of day when outdoor work is being done
  • the pattern and length of exposure - exposure can be in one long episode or through a series of shorter episodes which add up over the course of a day
  • the presence of reflective surfaces such as water, metal or concrete
  • the presence of photosensitisers – these cause photosensitivity, or abnormally high sensitivity of the skin or eyes to UVR. Examples of photosensitisers are industrial chemicals, drugs, plants and some essential oils and fragrances.

You can consult with workers and their representatives through informal conversations, surveys, interviews or focus groups, to learn more about:

  • incidences of sunburn or heat-related illness
  • ways they’re being exposed to UVR
  • current behaviour in regard to sun protection
  • whether any sun protection measures already in place are effective or need to change.

When you’ve assessed the risk, collaborate with your workers to minimise the risk. The most effective way to control risks is to eliminate the hazards. For example, it may be possible to complete work at night, eliminating sun exposure.

If this isn’t possible, the How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2011 (PDF, 1.02 MB) outlines a hierarchy of control measures from most effective to least effective. These include:

  • engineering controls - physical measures including mechanical devices or process.
  • administrative controls – work methods or procedures to minimise exposure to a hazard
  • personal protective equipment and clothing (PPE).

Engineering controls

These are changes to the work environment that reduce exposure to UVR. They can include measures such as:

  • providing shaded areas or temporary shade, including indoor or shaded areas for rest and meal breaks
  • applying window tinting on work vehicles
  • modifying reflective surfaces.

Administrative controls

These are changes to work procedures and the way that work is organised to reduce UVR exposure, such as:

  • scheduling outdoor work tasks when levels of solar UVR are less intense, for example, earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon
  • scheduling indoor and shaded work tasks when levels of solar UVR are strongest, for example, in the middle of the day
  • encouraging workers to move jobs to shaded areas
  • encouraging workers to rotate between indoor, shaded and outdoor tasks to avoid exposure to solar UVR for long periods of time
  • making the UV index available every day and encourage use of the SunSmart app.
  • identifying and minimise contact with photosensitising substances, which can increase your sensitivity to UV radiation

Personal protective equipment and clothing

Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and clothing that gives a barrier between your workers and the sun, such as:

  • sun protective work clothing (UPF 45+) like collared, long-sleeved shirts and long trousers
  • sun protective hats which cover the face, head, ears and neck
  • sunglasses which meet Australian standards
  • broad-spectrum, SPF30+ water resistant sunscreen.

For more information on how to create a sun safe work environment, see the Cancer Council’s SunSmart at work resource.

Risk management is an ongoing process. Circumstances can change and you need to regularly review the work environment to identify any new risks.

According to work health and safety laws, you’re required to review your control measures in the following situations:

  • when you become aware that a control measure isn’t working
  • when there’s been a change that might give rise to a new risk
  • when you identify a new hazard or risk
  • when workers indicate that a review is needed
  • when a supervisor or health and safety representative requests a review
  • when the dynamic and complexity of your business changes.

Standards and compliance

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (the WHS Act) provides a framework to protect the health, safety and welfare of all workers at your place of work. It also protects the health and safety of all other people who might be affected by the work.

The Australian and New Zealand standard for sun protective clothing AS/NZS 4399:2017

The Australian and New Zealand standard for sunglasses and fashion spectacles AS/NZS 1067:2003

Codes of practice

You should read the How to Manage Work Health and Safety Risks Code of Practice 2011 (PDF, 1.02 MB) carefully to make sure your business is complying with the health and safety duties in the WHS Act.

The Managing the Work Environment and Facilities Code of Practice 2011 (PDF, 0.7 MB) includes relevant topics such as outdoor work, shade, heat, UVR.

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