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Occupational Exposure to Natural UV Radiation

Posted by Shivi Kakar

Jul 18, 2011 2:09:15 AM

Laurie deLaski, CIH

It’s summertime again... time for barbeques, bathing suits, and sunscreen.  We all know we should protect ourselves from the sun damage to skin, eyes, and possible skin cancer.  I remember as a child the only available sun lotion was 2, 4, and 8, and it was considered healthy to get a little red.  A result of that latent exposure to the sun was Melanoma that killed my sister at age 47.

When asked about potential occupational “overexposure” to sunshine, I had to ask:

  • Is there more to know about protecting workers from sun exposure?

  • What are the regulations and occupational exposure recommendations for exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation?

Here are some answers ….

It is well established that UV light is the part of sunlight that causes “sunburn”.  UV light is a type of non-ionizing radiation with very high energy, which is why it can cause tissue damage.  So, it follows that one should protect themselves from overexposure to this commonplace yet risky energy source.

What do the government regulators and research institutions recommend?

The only reference in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards to UV radiation regards eye protection from UV radiation generated by welding arcs.  OSHA does have an informational webpage titled “ Protecting Yourself in the Sun”.

The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) has a recommended standard for employee exposure to UV radiation; however, this standard relies on measurement of the UV exposure and is intended for indoor/manmade sources of UV radiation.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Workplace Safety and Health Topics  webpage, UV Radiation, is devoted to providing information to workers and employers regarding the risks, health hazards, and recommended control methods for reducing the risks of sunburn and skin cancer from sun exposure.  NIOSH recommends the following for protection from occupational exposure to UV radiation:

  • Wear sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 15.

    • SPF refers to the amount of time that persons will be protected from a burn. An SPF of 15 will allow a person to stay out in the sun 15 times longer than they normally would be able to stay without burning. The SPF rating applies to skin reddening and protection against UVB exposure.

    • SPF does not refer to protection against UVA. Products containing Mexoryl, Parsol 1789, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or avobenzone block UVA rays.

    • Sunscreen performance is affected by wind, humidity, perspiration, and proper application.

  • Old sunscreens should be thrown away because they lose their potency after 1-2 years.

  • Sunscreens should be liberally applied (a minimum of 1 ounce) at least 20 minutes before sun exposure.

    • Special attention should be given to covering the ears, scalp, lips, neck, tops of feet, and backs of hands.

  • Sunscreens should be reapplied at least every 2 hours and each time a person gets out of the water or perspires heavily.

    • Some sunscreens may also lose efficacy when applied with insect repellents, necessitating more frequent application when the two products are used together.

  • Follow the application directions on the sunscreen bottle.

  • Another effective way to prevent sunburn is by wearing appropriate clothing.

    • Dark clothing with a tight weave is more protective than light-colored, loosely woven clothing.

    • High-SPF clothing has been developed to provide more protection for those with photosensitive skin or a history of skin cancer.

  • Workers should also wear wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses with almost 100% UV protection and with side panels to prevent excessive sun exposure to the eyes.

The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and World Health Organization (WHO) published a recommendation paper “ Protecting Workers from Ultraviolet Radiation, 14/2007”.  This document addresses both natural and manmade UV sources.  It provides an interesting risk matrix based on latitude, work conditions, work environment and clothing and makes recommendations for additional protection based on the combination of these factors. The book is comprehensive and full of interesting facts for anyone interested in diving in.  For example, dark sunglasses without the dark side shields (or wrap-around design) will allow a substantial amount of UV exposure to the eyes.  This is because when wearing sunglasses the pupil and eyelids open proportionally to the darkness of the sunglass then the light exposure comes in from the sides!

Occupational health programs for outdoor workers at risk from UV exposure include the classic industrial hygiene elements:

Engineering Controls

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Topics: health and safety, General Industry H&S, General EHS, Construction H&S, Exposure, occupational, UV radiation, worker, sun exposure, ultraviolet, UV exposure, UV

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