Skin cancer is Australia's cancer. Exposure to our sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the strongest in the world and is the cause of at least 95% of all skin cancers and melanoma. With so much of our lives spent in the sun, it's no wonder that two in three Australians are diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70. Although anyone, of any skin tone, can develop skin cancer, certain occupations are at more risk than others.
Outdoor workers in Australia are more than twice as likely to develop skin cancer than those who work inside. Long sun exposure is one of several risk factors for melanoma and other skin cancers, like squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and basal cell carcinoma (BCC). Paired with minimal sun protection — wearing a hat, sunglasses and protective clothing, seeking shade, reapplying sunscreen — and long work hours (over a third of our adult lives are spent at the workplace), Cancer Council Australia estimates that around 200 melanomas and 34,000 non-melanoma skin cancers are linked to workplace exposure every year.
Employers have a duty of care to protect their employees from UV radiation, which is classified as a ‘class 1 carcinogen’, the same health risk category as asbestos and tobacco). Solar radiation is the most common carcinogen to which workers are exposed (86 per cent), according to research conducted by the Australian Work Exposure Study (AWES).
Moreover, statistics show that men are twice more likely to be diagnosed with melanoma than the female population — at a rate of 1 in 14 compared to 1 in 24.
Working long hours on roads, scaffolding, and roofs results in a strong dose of daily UV radiation, especially during the high-risk hours of 10 am to 2 pm. Even though prolonged, demanding physical activity in the sun may tempt you to remove layers of clothes, it's important to stay well protected from UV exposure.
Rather than a sign of health, sunburn is actually radiation damage to the skin. On a hot January day, sunburn can occur in just as little as 15 minutes in Australia, and regardless of how mild it is, all sunburns can cause serious, permanent damage to your skin. Safe Work Australia recommends preventions to mitigate the risk of excessive UV exposure, such as working in the early morning or late afternoon, if possible, and engineering temporary undercover structures if there is no shade around.
Similarly, farmers spend more time in the sun than not. Besides the work itself, the outdoor lifestyle that the countryside and farming demands increases the likelihood of compounded skin damage from UV radiation. Longer days coincide with harvest times when the amount of work in direct sunlight increases. In fact, the Australian Work Exposure Study: Carcinogen Exposure in the Agriculture Industry, a study conducted by Safe Work Australia, revealed that 99% of agricultural workers are exposed to unsafe UV levels, but only 10% are adequately protected.
The sun risks to agricultural workers also include gardeners, landscapers and those involved in forestry and logging. People with a family history of skin cancer are also at a higher risk of developing skin cancer in some form.
Workers in the mining industry are exposed to extreme heat all year long, especially those in northern Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Miners are required to wear hard hats, gloves and high-visibility vests as personal protective equipment (PPE) for their job, but long sleeve shirts, wide-brimmed hats and long trousers are strongly recommended.
Even though it can be irritating when you sweat and can sting your eyes, reapplying sunscreen (of an SPF30+ rating or better) to your face will benefit you and your skin in the long run.
Those who work around water
People in the fishing industry, naval officers and lifeguards, this one is for you. Solar UV radiation can be reflected off certain surfaces like metal, concrete, snow and water, and straight onto your skin and into your eyes. According to the Cancer Council, a boat deck reflects 7–9% of the UV radiation, open water reflects 3–9%, dry beach sand 15–18%, and sea surf/foam reflects the second highest amount of UV rays after snow, with 25–30%.
A long-term effect of reflected radiation can be squamous cell carcinoma of the conjunctiva and cancer of the skin surrounding the eye.
A pair of high-rated, close-fitting and wraparound sunglasses can minimise the impact of sun exposure on your eyes. In Australia, all sunglasses are tested and classified according to their level of protection, ranging from category zero (providing the least defence) to category four (which offers special-purpose protection).
Police officers, firefighters and defence workers
Between being stationed outside and walking in and out of sheltered areas (like businesses, offices, residences and courts), it can be easy for these professionals to underestimate the amount of sun radiation they get exposed to in a day.
While laminated windscreens block most UV radiation, the glass used for side and back windows does not. Truck drivers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, courier services and tradesmen who spend a lot of time driving should reapply SPF50+ as regularly as possible to avoid sunburns in areas of your skin like the ears and neck. Ultraviolet rays are still dangerous on cloudy days.
Airline workers (pilots and hosts) on planes should exercise extra caution with sun safety because they have a higher-than-average risk of developing malignant melanoma from the higher UV radiation that comes with travelling at greater altitudes. The thinner the atmosphere, the less UV it can absorb.
Of course, people who work outdoors are more likely to be exposed to UV radiation than those who work indoors. However, sunlight can penetrate through glass, and if you get sunburnt at your office desk, then you are being exposed to solar radiation. Most office buildings do not use glass that blocks UV rays from their windows.
Office workers also tend to expose themselves to short but intense bouts of UV radiation on holidays and weekends due to their sedentary, indoor working week. However, intermittent sun exposure is the main cause of developing melanoma, so it is imperative to remain vigilant about sun protection.
Protect yourself and have your skin checked
Ultimately, all Australians should take care to protect themselves from the sun. It's easy: dress in protective clothing like long sleeves and pants, collared shirts, broad-brimmed hats and sunglasses. There are even sunsafe attachments for hard hats available.
If your job demands you remain outdoors during hours of the day when UV levels are at their peak, a broad-spectrum, water-resistant SPF30+ sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours on parts of the skin uncovered by clothing.
For those who are self-employed, sun-protective products are a tax-deductible expense, according to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO).
Moreover, another healthy sun-smart habit to practise is to book regular skin checks. Early detection is key to overcoming your skin cancer diagnosis. It is recommended that Australians have an annual check of their skin for suspicious moles and lumps, but if you belong to any of the aforementioned industries, you may need to have one more often.