No sun protection for workers? It could cost you...

No sun protection for workers? It could cost you...

By Hannah Dixon on 14 December 2017 More than two million employees who work outdoors are not being provided with any sun protection by their employers, according to a new report.

The 2017 Skin Health Australia Report Card (SHARC Report) was based on a national population survey of skin health commissioned by the Skin & Cancer Foundation Inc. 

It found that 45% of respondents were required to work outdoors sometimes, regularly or all the time. That is equivalent to eight million adult Australians. Despite this large figure, 57% of outdoor workers said their employers did not supply sunscreen, 66% did not supply protective clothing and 80% did not provide sunglasses. 

Of concern, 28% of employees working outdoors were provided no protection at all by their employers. 

Duty of care

Associate Professor Chris Baker, a consultant dermatologist at the Skin & Cancer Foundation Inc, and immediate past president of the Australasian College of Dermatologists, said while employers were getting better, they should all be adopting sun safe practices given the health risk to employees and their potential legal exposure. 

“Two million employees left to fend for themselves for sun protection is unacceptable,” Associate Professor Baker said.

“It’s hard to know why they don’t see it as their responsibility as clearly there is a duty of care for employers to provide a safe workplace. While the numbers are improving, we still have a long way to go.” 

The report shows there has been an improvement in the past three years – 44% of respondents in 2014 reported they were provided with no sun protection.

Workers comp 

Employers are potentially open to significant workers compensation claims if their staff develop skin cancers or melanoma.  

Andrew Farr, workplace law partner at PwC, said the lax approach by many employers to sun protection was concerning. 

“Given Australia’s robust Work Health and Safety standards and laws, I would hope to see more employers realising that it’s their responsibility to ensure that outdoor workers are protected from risk, and that includes sun damage and sunburn,” Farr said. 

“Ideally, comprehensive sun protection would be provided to outdoor workers. It is important to stay compliant, minimise any liability to your business and do the right thing by your employees and their families. The technical definition of ‘comprehensive sun protection’ differs from state to state, so every employer should know their obligations to staff who work outdoors.” 

Identify risks

Associate Professor Baker said employers should first of all be aware of the risks, even when it is not always apparent that employees are exposed to the sun during work. For example, driving and unloading vehicles involves incidental sun exposure. 

“The range is quiet broad and it may not be recognised compared to someone who is working outside in a park, for example,” he said.

Workplaces should look at the work, identify risks and should consider providing appropriate protections such as sunscreen, hats, sunglasses and long-sleeved tops. 

“Secondly, employers should discuss the problem with employees and assess individual employee needs. Some may have a particular skin condition, have sensitive skin or had a skin cancer in the past and may require a different approach,” Associate Professor Baker said

While employers can and should help in Australia’s fight against skin cancer and melanoma, Associate Professor Baker said it is ultimately down to each individual to be responsible for their skin health. 

“That responsibility comes in many forms; be it protecting your skin from irritation, asking your employer to provide you with appropriate sun protection, or choosing an occupation appropriate for your skin health,” he said. 

“I think most people think it is just during leisure time where we are exposed to the sun but we should remember we spend a lot of our time doing work.”

Skin condition impacts choice of occupation

The SHARC report found 33% of survey respondents said that a skin condition had ‘a little’ to ‘extreme’ influence on their choice of occupation. That is the highest the figure has ever been during the four years of the survey. It started out at just 19% in 2014. 

In this case a skin condition is broader than sun damage and skin cancer. It includes a range of problems including eczema, psoriasis and allergies.

Additionally, 12% of survey respondents, or about two million Australians, have had to miss work in the past year because of a skin condition and, of those, nearly three in 10 missed 11 to 15 days because of that condition.

Associate Professor Baker said this illustrated the economic impact of skin disease and a reason for employers to think and do more about their employees’ skin health – especially when it comes to sun protection. 

Copies of the 2017 SHARC Report can be downloaded here.


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