Study reveals UV exposure as the most common carcinogen in the Australian construction industry

Tuesday 3 December, 2019

Only 8% of construction workers use adequate sun protection

A report produced by Safe Work Australia measuring carcinogen exposure in the workplace, shows solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation to be the most common carcinogen construction workers are exposed to, and while the vast majority are exposed to UV on a daily basis, only a handful are using adequate skin cancer prevention methods.

The Australian Work Exposure Study (AWES)*, assessed the tasks undertaken and controls (i.e. safety measures) used during typical work activities by 459 construction workers, estimating their exposure to 38 known or suspected carcinogens. The majority of construction workers were technicians and trades workers (63%) with labourers (19%) and machine operators and drivers (10%) making up the remainder.

The most common carcinogens (cancer-causing agents or substances) to which workers had probable exposure were solar UV radiation (86%), followed by environmental tobacco smoke (59%), crystalline silica (38%), diesel engine exhaust (37%), wood dust (36%) and lead (24%). Of those exposed to UV radiation, a significant proportion (64%) were deemed to have a high level of exposure from working outdoors.

Alarmingly, only 8% of workers who spent four or more hours a day outside were considered to be using appropriate sun protection controls. Controls were considered adequate if workers used four sun protection measures – sunscreen, a hat, protective clothing and shade – for at least half the time they were outdoors.

Head of SunSmart and Chair of Cancer Council Australia’s National Skin Cancer Committee, Heather Walker, said the results were very concerning.

“Many construction workers may not think of UV as a carcinogen when compared to the likes of tobacco smoke, silica and diesel fumes. However, it’s really important to remember that just because you can’t see, smell or feel UV radiation doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. In many ways this makes UV more of a threat as it’s hard to know when your skin is being damaged until it’s too late.” Ms Walker said.

Director of Assessment and Advice at ARPANSA, Dr Rick Tinker, said Australia experiences some of the most extreme UV radiation levels in the world and outdoor workers need to be conscious that exposure to UV radiation causes permanent and irreversible damage that continues to add up.

“Each year in Australia 1.2 million outdoor workers are exposed to UV radiation at levels five to 10 times more than that of indoor workers, and as a result are at greater risk of developing skin cancer.

Cancer survivor, Peter Vine, knows all too well the risks construction workers face. Having worked as a carpenter, in 1986 Mr Vine was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma on his shoulder and then again in 2010 on his back.

“I’d work for hours at a time on site with my shirt off. I was constantly in the sun unprotected. The first diagnosis was a real wake-up call and I was forced to change my sun habits after that. I think it’s important for guys on the worksite to know that no one is immune from skin cancer.”

Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world and outdoor workers are at much higher risk than indoor workers. Around 200 melanomas and 34,000 non-melanoma skin cancers each year can be attributed to outdoor work.

Ms Walker said because of the heightened risk outdoor workers face, they should be protecting their skin even at very low levels of UV to prevent the cumulative effect.

“The risk of skin cancer increases every time their skin is exposed to UV radiation so covering up all year round is really important.”

SunSmart recommends outdoor workers protect their skin in five ways:

  • Slip on protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible
  • Slop on SPF30 or higher, broad spectrum, water resistant sunscreen. Be sure to reapply every two hours
  • Slap on a broadbrim hat
  • Seek shade or reschedule work to avoid peak UV times
  • Slide on sunglasses

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* About the Australian Work Exposure Study (AWES): Carcinogen exposures in the construction industry

Driscoll, T., Darcey, E., Carey, R., Reid, A., and Fritschi, L. (2016). The Australian Work Exposures Study (AWES): Carcinogen Exposures in the Construction Industry. Canberra: Safe Work Australia.

The report was prepared by Safe Work Australia using AWES data in May 2016. AWES was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, Safe Work Australia, Cancer Council WA and Cancer Council Australia. The report focused on 459 respondents categorised as working in the construction industry from a random, population-based sample of 5528 Australian workers. The aim of the research was to improve understanding of workers’ potential exposure to 38 known or suspected carcinogens likely to be used in Australian workplaces.

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