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Faculty of Community Services

National sun safety project shields outdoor workers against hazards of skin cancer and heat stress

Eric Liberda, Occupational and Public Health, Ryerson


thomas tenkate

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada, and more than 75% of outdoor workers are in the highest category of exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR), the most important skin cancer risk factor. Outdoor workers are also at risk for heat stress, including heat stroke, which can be fatal or cause irreversible damage to the heart, lungs, kidney and liver.

Thomas Tenkate, director of and professor in the School of Occupational and Public Health, is leading the $1.2-million Sun Safety at Work Canada project, with partners from across the country, to better protect more than 1.5 million outdoor workers in Canada against the occupational hazards of both skin cancer and heat stress. Phase 1 of this study – funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer – includes the development, implementation and evaluation of a comprehensive sun safety program that engages management and workers in 17 workplaces in British Columbia, Ontario and the Atlantic provinces.

Phase 2 will enable workplaces throughout the country to implement effective and sustainable sun safety policies and practices on their own, by adapting resources and tools delivered through an interactive website to their own needs and their current stage of policy and practice. “Our initial findings show that a very high proportion of outdoor workers are not as well protected against solar UVR and heat stress as they should be. They are consistently identifying this as an issue they want employers to address. Ultimately, we want to have sun safety more clearly articulated in government policy as are other workplace hazards, such as asbestos or lead,” says Tenkate.

Tenkate’s nationwide project is innovative in that it tackles both sun and heat protection, and it builds on the successful results of his previous Australian sun safety study. For that project, 14 small- and medium-sized workplaces across four outdoor industries in Queensland, Australia, worked with the project team to develop tailored sun protection action plans. After the 18-month intervention, outdoor workers reported substantial increases in workplace support for and personal use of sun protection. They sought out natural shade more often and wore more personal protective equipment, including broad-brimmed hats, long-sleeved collared shirts and long trousers, and reported fewer cases of sunburn.

“Our study showed that workers are able to make these changes when workplaces are supportive and have processes and procedures that value and encourage sun protection. Having management support and a very engaged workplace champion are critical for success,” Tenkate says.