With more people in the UK succumbing to skin cancer, what safe systems of work should you introduce for those employees who work outside and just how far are you expected to go?

A burning issue

Many workers, such as those in construction and gardening, spend much of their working day outside. If this applies to you, then you’re likely to have taken precautions to guard against the elements, e.g. cold and rain. But have you considered the risks of working outside in the summer, not just from heat but from the sun itself? With incidences of skin cancer increasing rapidly, what, if any, steps should you take to advise and protect your staff against these risks?

Legal position

As your staff are still at work, you owe them the same duty of care for their health and safety, as you would if they were in an office or factory all day. This means that you need to assess the risks to them of being outside during very hot periods and introduce control measures accordingly. If you’re concerned about your potential liability for any incidence of skin cancer, the truth is that a claimant would have real difficulty in proving that you were responsible for it. After all, it could just as easily be caused by the typically British approach to excessive sun worship at weekends and during summer holidays. Nevertheless, do make your staff aware of the risks of being in the sun without taking adequate precautions.

Nature of the problem

According to figures produced by the National Health Service (NHS), over 2,000 people die from skin cancer each year in the UK. This is more than a doubling since the early 1980s. In addition, there are over 69,000 new cases of skin cancer diagnosed each year.

Warning signs

Those most at risk are those with pale skin, especially those with fair or red hair who have lots of freckles/moles, and who burn easily. However, all staff who spend a lot of time working outside should be aware of the warning signs. The main ones are as follows:

  • a new mole which appears, or an existing one which is growing in size.
  • any mole with a ragged edge, as ordinary moles have a smooth, regular shape.
  • any mole which contains different colours.
  • a mole which itches, bleeds, or is inflamed. Ordinary moles shouldn’t cause any discomfort.

Control measures

Due to the potential risks involved, staff are advised to do the following:

  • Cover up in the sun, e.g. wear a T-shirt and wide-brimmed hat to prevent burns to the head and sunstroke.
  • To wear suitable sunscreen and to re-apply it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Drink lots of water. Staff should remember that thirst is a sign of dehydration.
  • Look at the tasks undertaken and consider if working hours or patterns can be altered in order to reduce the time spent outside whilst the sun is at its strongest, between 12 noon and 2pm.
  • Have a break from the sun and stay in the shade whenever possible; especially during your lunch break.
  • Check your skin regularly for any unusual spots or moles. See your GP if you find something of concern.

Look at altering work patterns to avoid the lunchtime sun and follow HSE advice by encouraging staff to cover up. If you want to be really safe, issue a guide warning of the danger signs of skin cancer, e.g. changes to moles.