Sun Awareness

By James Wilkinson, Design Team Manager at Gradient

It might not feel like it, but summer is on its way and that means re-emphasising the need for the public to work and play safely in the sun. A national campaign, National Sun Awareness Week, has been set up for that very aim. Devised by the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD), this year’s ‘two-pronged’ programme runs from May 1st to May 7th and provides an essential combination of prevention and detection advice. 

The guidance will be of particular interest to construction personnel due to the alfresco nature of their work. Building sites are exposed places, offering few areas of refuge from weather extremes. Roofers will know this feeling all too well, with sub-zero or baking temperatures providing an additional peril to the work-at-height risk.

With a greater understanding of the potential harms associated with the sun’s UV rays, workers should start to consider which attire will offer them the best protection during the summer months. As an example of why builders should take good care when working outside and UV rays are at their highest – between May and September – a British journal of Cancer report found that construction workers account for 44% of occupational skin cancer diagnosis, and 42% of occupational skin cancer deaths each year. This equates to 21 deaths and 101 diagnoses.

Avoid the burn

UV rays are not discriminatory in the threat they pose to people not prepared for their powerful reach. Everyone is affected by damage to the skin from the sun. In 2022, for example, 35% of people in the UK were burnt at least once, with 28% of those being burnt more than three times during the year. And the unfortunate fact is, the more frequent the burn, the more likely a person is to develop melanoma skin cancer. Even one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person’s chance of developing melanoma later in life. Furthermore, the sun doesn’t need to be visible to be damaging. Up to 80% of its harmful UV rays can pierce the clouds, so even if you’re not basking in an undiluted solar blaze, you are not immune to being burnt.

Whilst site workers should do their best to cover-up when the sun is out and the heat is on, it shouldn’t come at a cost to their comfort. Manual labour is intensive, physically demanding business. Therefore, a number of strategic, sartorial choices are important to remaining protected without overheating. These include:

. Accessorise protective headgear with a cloth or a longer piece of material to shield their ears and neck area.

. Wear shades or tinted glasses that offer UVB and UVA protection to counteract the sun’s potentially damaging glare.

. Choose long-sleeved tops, and bottoms made from closely-knit materials and breathable fabrics in darker colours.

In terms of additional guidance, site workers should apply sunscreen offering a minimum of SP15 protection to areas of exposed skin every two hours. In order to maintain hydration levels, a filled water bottle should always be to hand, particularly those toiling in isolated locations such as roofs. And at risk of stating the obvious, on days that simmer rather than cause a shiver, al fresco operatives should ensure lunch and tea break times are taken in the shade.

Despite the risks, it’s important to retain a sense of proportion. The sun is an extremely good source of natural vitamin D; it literally lights up our lives and is as good for our health and wellbeing as any medical supplement on the market. But too much of anything can be detrimental. Therefore, whilst some of us dream of a blazing summer, construction workers more than most need to remain mindful of the sun’s darker side.