For construction workers, sun protection is an often-overlooked part of workplace safety. Sun safety gets ignored when you’re working with more immediate dangers. It makes perfect sense: it’s not easy to remember sunscreen when you’re working with dangerous equipment.
Additionally, many jobsites won’t prioritize sun safety, which means it falls on you, the individual worker, to stay safe. You may feel pressured to stay in the sun by a supervisor, fellow employees, or the task you’re working on.
As sun safety gets ignored or overlooked on jobsites, skin cancer is on the rise across the US. Consistent exposure to the sun’s UV rays increases your chance of basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or deadly melanoma. There are approximately 1 million new skin cancer diagnoses per year, and as an employee who works outside, you’re at risk. Every construction worker is at risk of skin cancer, regardless of skin tone.
You can protect yourself from skin cancer by following sun safety practices. We see and understand the barriers to sun safety on a jobsite, so we’ve outlined the easiest ways to keep yourself protected.
Sunscreen is the cheapest way to protect yourself from the sun. Broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of at least 15 have been shown to reduce the risk of skin cancer and premature skin aging. A higher SPF will provide even more protection.
Apply a thick, even layer everywhere you will be exposed to sun. This includes your back and torso, because even when you’re wearing a shirt, you can be exposed to UV rays.
Most people typically forget to apply sunscreen to their lips, ears, and hands. Ears are especially overlooked, making them most vulnerable to skin cancer. When your ears or hands are uncovered, they need sunscreen. If you don’t want to apply sunscreen directly to your lips, use an FDA-approved sunscreen lip balm.
If you can’t carry a full bottle of sunscreen with you, consider buying a small travel container and filling it with sunscreen. A small bottle is easier to transport and can be refilled each morning in seconds.
It’s important to note that when applied to your forehead, sunscreen can be sweated off and drip into your eyes. You can avoid this by wearing a bandana tied above your eyebrows, a moisture-wicking cycling cap, or a no-sweat hardhat liner.
Sunscreen isn’t the only way you should protect yourself. All sunscreens wear off eventually, especially when exposed to sweat. It’s best to apply every two hours, but when you’re on the job, we know you may not be able to take regular breaks.
Sun-protective clothing is one of the best ways to protect yourself when you can’t reapply sunscreen.
In general, clothing is the best form of sun protection, but not all clothing is created equal. You’ll get better protection from a darker, tightly woven fabric shirt than from a white cotton t-shirt. However, darker fabrics can make you sweat and even overheat in the summer.
Your best bet is to wear clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). UPF-rated clothing is usually made with a lightweight fabric and treated with dyes or chemicals to block out UV light. These clothes often have a UPF rating of 50 or higher, while a white cotton t-shirt has a UPF rating of around 5.
Unfortunately, there is a price barrier to this type of clothing. UPF shirts can range from $25-$70 in price, and they may not last as long as a traditional cotton t-shirt. You may want to limit using a UPF shirt to when the UV rays are at their highest, to make sure the shirt doesn’t wear out too fast.
A dark cotton t-shirt, combined with sunscreen, isn’t a perfect way to avoid UV rays. But it will protect you better than if you didn’t wear either.
Wearing a hat is another great way to protect your face, ears, and neck from the sun. Make sure the hat is UPF-rated or made of a tightly woven dark fabric. If you’re required to wear a hard hat, there are accessories that can be fitted over or under your hard hat to help protect your neck and face.
Did you know that non-UV protection sunglasses can actually increase the amount of UV rays your eyes get? Sunglasses darken your environment, which makes your pupils dilate and increases your retinal exposure to UV light.
If your sunglasses don’t meet UV standards, it’s time to replace them. Choose sunglasses with a rating of UV400 or 100% UV protection. The best sunglasses have large, wraparound frames and will cover more of your eye socket.
Dark glasses don’t automatically indicate UV protection. You can ask your optometrist to check your sunglasses to see if they are UV rated.
Like UPF shirts, there is a cost barrier for UV-protection sunglasses. The average pair can cost around $40-60, and considering sunglasses can be easily broken, it may put you off from ordering them. However, considering the sun can cause cataracts and cancer, it’s important to factor a pair into your budget.
Never underestimate the power of shade. Working around UV exposure isn’t always possible, since it’s strongest from 10:00am – 4:00pm, but a tent or shady area can help you avoid the sun during your breaks.
Taking regular breaks, when possible, can help you avoid sunburning and risking skin cancer. Taking a shade break also gives you time to reapply sunscreen and rest to avoid heatstroke.
UV rays can cause irreparable damage to your skin, and as a construction worker, you’re at risk of premature skin aging and skin cancer. You can protect yourself by using sunscreen, wearing sun-protective clothing and UV-rated sunglasses, and taking shade breaks whenever possible.
We recognize that practicing sun safety isn’t the easiest thing in the world, and it can be expensive. Sun protection is a conscious choice. You probably won’t feel natural wearing different clothing or applying sunscreen on-site.
But these changes can help keep you alive and healthy, so they’re worth doing. Never let a job dictate how you practice sun safety. Be willing to take breaks to reapply sunscreen and get out of the sun. Importantly, never get the mindset that since you haven’t practiced sun safety thus far, you shouldn’t bother now. Sun damage is compounding, so each exposure puts you in more danger.
Starting a daily sun safety routine may prompt others on your jobsite to follow. You can help change the culture of your jobsite just by prioritizing your own health and safety. Practice sun safety to stay healthy for your family and your future.
Want to learn more about sun and heat safety? Check out our summertime tips.