Sun Protection: A New PPE

Diane Kelly

June 2008

When someone in the construction industry is asked to name some examples of personal protective equipment, the basics are usually covered. The list usually includes things like a hard hat, safety goggles, hearing protection, gloves and steel tipped shoes or boots.

As the temperatures increase with days that are longer and sunnier, it may be helpful to expand what is considered to be a PPE. With rates of all types of skin cancers soaring, the time has come to include a basic sunscreen and sunglasses as PPE, and include sun safety education in the construction industry’s basic safety programs.

Some states have crafted laws that address just this issue. In New York the law is called the "Sun Safety Law,” which deals more with the danger inherent in the sun itself and less with the effects of summer heat.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States with more than 1 million new cases diagnosed each year. Men over the age of 50 are about twice as likely as women to be diagnosed with some type of skin cancer, and the majority of those diagnosed with melanoma are white males.

Men in Construction: High Risk
Since the majority of individuals found at any job site are men, this is indeed a startling statistic. Men are at higher risk for several reasons:

• Men spend more hours in the sun than women.

• Men typically have less hair to cover their ears and scalp, so they are also more likely to develop cancers of the often exposed back, chest and shoulders.

• Men are more likely to avoid getting checked regularly by a doctor.

• Men tend not to bother with sun protection techniques.

This combination is especially an issue for those in the construction industry who make their living out in the sun. But why is the sun so dangerous? The warming rays of the sun are made up of ultraviolet radiation. Humans and their skin are most interested in two of these rays: UVA and UVB. They are the rays that damage the skin and increased the risk of skin cancer.

UVB rays are mainly responsible for sunburn and skin cancers while UVA rays affect the skin’s deeper layers causing wrinkling, leathery skin and sagging. New studies are also finding that UVA rays may also be responsible for skin cancers.

The risk of developing a skin cancer increases with several factors:

• The amount of time spent in the sun over the years.

• The intensity of the sun at the time of exposure.

• Use of sun protection; sunscreen and sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays.

• Work surfaces like concrete metal roofing and asphalt that can reflect the sun’s rays and increase the damage done.

Since those working in construction have very little influence over any of these factors except for the use of sun protection, this is where the education and change must occur.

Protect Yourself
The Skin Cancer Foundation states that the most effective way of minimizing the risk of skin cancer is to avoid sun exposure when the UV rays are strongest. This is typically in the warmer weather and between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., which is typically when most construction takes place. Since this is impractical in a construction career, other solutions should be used.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration advises wearing tightly woven clothes that block out sunlight. The color of the fabric also helps; darker-colored fabrics are more effective than lighter colors at blocking out the UV rays. An easy rule of thumb to test a fabric’s ability to block the sun is to hold the fabric up to the light. If you can see through it, then the sun can pass through and cause damage to the skin.

Since working at a site in summer is a hot job, thick, dark fabrics are usually not a first choice. But many manufacturers are using fabrics that are specially treated with chemical UV absorbers known as colorless dyes. They help to prevent some penetration of UVA and UVB rays.

There is also a laundry additive that contains a sunscreen that when added to a detergent helps to increase the sunscreen properties of the garment. It can be used on clothing already owned so would help to decrease the cost of protection.

Hats are also useful in protecting the body from the sun. Unfortunately, neither baseball caps nor hard hats are the best choice. They protect only the face and front of the neck but leave the ears and the rest of the neck exposed. Since hard hats are a must at construction sites, the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America ( began providing cloth flaps that can be attached to a hard hat to protect the back of the neck during the workday.

Another main tool against the sun’s rays is the use of sunscreen. A sunscreen is a chemical agent the helps to prevent UV radiation from reaching the skin. Sunscreens are rated by their SPF or Sun Protection Factor. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends the use of a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, though higher is recommended for those outside a great deal.

Although wonderfully successful there are problems with the use of sunscreens. First, sunscreens must be reapplied every two hours to remain effective. Also UVA rays don’t cause the telltale sunburn so the damage done by UVA rays will go unnoticed. Be sure to use a sunscreen that blocks both types of rays.

Skin cancers are the most common of all cancers in the United States, and construction workers are at great risk. Simple changes in outlook can help decrease this risk.

Diane Kelly is a safety specialist with INTEC, Waverly, Pa.