Prolonged exposure to the sun can cause serious and even life-threatening harm to people who work outside for even part of their shift. As a safety manager, you need to know high temperatures and sun exposure can hurt employees, as well as the controls available to limit exposure. To that end, here are four major steps you can take to protect workers from heat and the sun.
The first step in improving sun safety in your workplace is to understand the two main hazards related to sun exposure: UV exposure and heat stress. Sunlight contains invisible UV (ultraviolet) rays. UV rays are harmful to the human body, particularly to the skin, and can cause wrinkles, skin tags and skin cancer. Heat stress, meanwhile, is an umbrella term for a number of heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, sunburn and heat rash, all of which are caused when an individual is overexposed to either sunlight, high temperatures, or both. These illnesses share a common set of symptoms that include nausea, dehydration, fainting and muscle cramping.
One of the first steps to protecting employees from heat and sun-related illnesses is to make sure they’re aware of the hazards. Consider conducting a training session or toolbox talk to help workers understand these terms, their health risks and the symptoms they can cause. You should also educate them on how to protect themselves against these hazards, encouraging workers to limit their exposure as much as possible, cover up when outdoors, wear sunscreen and stay hydrated.
A robust sun safety plan requires a thorough workplace assessment that identifies when and where potential exposures will occur, which workers will be affected and the nature of the work being done during potential exposure. Be as thorough and specific as possible when completing this assessment and be sure to solicit worker feedback, as they may be aware of hazards and conditions that management has overlooked.
There are many variables to consider when analyzing potential sun exposures in the workplace. Once you’ve identified a work area that exposes workers to sunlight, examine how the geographical location impacts the strength and duration of the exposure. What time of day is the work being done? How reflective are the surfaces in the work area? Does the work area have any shade? Being specific and precise when assessing work areas for sun exposure will help you better determine when work procedures or the working environment can be adjusted to better protect your staff from heat-related illnesses.
Establish workplace controls
Armed with the knowledge of when and where sun exposures are occurring and who they are affecting, you are now in a good position to establish workplace controls to limit those exposures wherever possible. The best and most effective workplace hazard control is always elimination, so wherever possible move work indoors or under cover.
Next, identify potential engineering controls that could be implemented to guard against sun exposure. This may include a structure, umbrella, or planting trees to create shade in the work area; reducing the number of reflective surfaces in the work area; or installing air conditioning in vehicles that are driven frequently in hot weather.
For workplaces where the combination of strenuous work and extreme heat conditions creates very dangerous working conditions, it may be necessary to establish ‘trigger values’ where work is temporarily stopped if certain conditions are met. For example, a landscaping company may establish a trigger value of 95 degrees, and if the temperature rises above that threshold then work is stopped until the air temperature dips below the trigger.
All workplaces that have employees working outdoors should also have a few essential controls in place, namely, scheduled breaks to get workers out of the sun and stay hydrated, and access to a first aid kit, water and shade.
When it comes to sun safety, engineering and elimination controls are simply not possible in many circumstances and PPE is necessary to limit UV exposure and reduce heat stress. All employees should be trained on the importance of using PPE, the proper way to use it, and the possible risks or UV exposure and heat stress if PPE isn’t used correctly.
When it comes to protecting workers from the sun, not all personal protection offers the same benefits. Here is a list of sun PPE from most effective to least effective:
- Clothing – the most effective form of personal protection; long-sleeved clothes offer the most protection. Opt for clothing made from lightweight UPF material to stay cool and deflect UV rays.
- Hats – Broad-brimmed hats are best; baseball caps are least effective and offer little protection to cheeks and chin, and zero protection for the neck and ears.
- Sunglasses – Eyes are vulnerable to UV rays, so ensure sunglasses have complete UV protection and cover the eyes. Fashion sunglasses are not appropriate.
- Sunscreen – Sunscreen should always be worn by anyone working outdoors, with a minimum protection of SPF 30. Warn staff that sunscreen offers the least amount of protection, and to always wear with other forms of personal protection in addition to applying sunscreen.
The sun is extremely powerful. On hot and sunny days, workers can become dehydrated, over-tired and suffer sunburns even when using all the recommended forms of personal protection. Both workers and supervisors should keep a keen eye out for signs of heat stress and should take proactive steps to monitor themselves and others for symptoms.
These four steps are a good foundation for a successful workplace sun safety program. But the best sun safety programs regularly evaluate how well they’re working, and provide and support employees in building strong sun-safety habits. Ideally, employees who work outdoors will also be trained on human factors like rushing and complacency that could comprise their usual behavior and lead to excessive exposure to the sun or heat, even with experienced staff. Taking the extra step to educate employees on how mental and physical states could lead to sun-related illnesses could make a major difference in the efficacy of your sun safety program.