New study finds outdoor workers still not covering up in the sun

Date: 19/11/2002

With a scorching summer upon us, UWS researchers say outdoor construction workers are failing to heed the message to cover up in the sun and are putting themselves at risk of skin cancer.

Dr Jane Cioffi and Professor Lesley Wilkes from the University's Greater Western Sydney Nursing Research Group surveyed 145 builders, bricklayers, plumbers and painters to determine their sun protection behaviour and knowledge of skin cancer.

Dr Cioffi says while outdoor workers are aware of the risks, there is still a strong 'bronzed Aussie' culture which is making them resistant to using sunscreen and wearing protective clothing.

"Australians have been told about the dangers of skin cancer and have been encouraged to 'slip, slop, slap' for many years now. However take a drive past any construction site and you will still see workers out in the midday sun with their shirts off, exposing themselves to dangerous UV rays," says Dr Cioffi.

"It's a worrying situation when you consider new cases of skin cancer outnumber all forms of other cancer more than three-to-one. For adult males in the 20-54 year age group, melanoma of the skin is the most common cancer, and outdoor workers are one of the highest risk groups because of their high cumulative exposure to UV radiation."

Results showed that nearly three quarters of workers reported some episode of sunburn, with 26% getting sunburnt frequently or always, 48% occasionally and 25% never.

When it came to protecting themselves from UV rays, 56% said they frequently or always wore a brimmed hat, 50% wore a baseball cap, 61% wore sunglasses, 11% wore a sleeved shirt and 34% used sunscreen. Only 5% used a shade device.

"Hats and sunglasses were the most common form of sun protection used by workers, but there was a poor use of protection for the rest of the body," says Dr Cioffi.

Dr Cioffi says she was also concerned by the continuing perception that a tan is attractive.

"44% of workers considered a tanned body to be healthy and 72% stated that having a tan improved appearance. Clearly there is still a great resistance to the message that a tan equals sun damage," she says.

Dr Cioffi says workers' knowledge about skin cancer and sun protection was on the whole quite high, but this knowledge is failing to translate into practice.

"65% were aware of the UV index in the daily weather report, 33% said they had a skin check in the last 12 months, and 19% had a skin lesion removed," she says.

"They also knew that working without sunglasses caused eye damage (85%), that their risk of skin cancer was increased by working in the middle of the day (94%) and the important areas to cover are the head and chest (82%). A lesser number were aware that sweating increased the risk of sunburn (43%)."

Dr Cioffi says further research needs to be done into why construction workers have a resistance to covering up in the sun, but the initial findings send important messages to both health authorities and the construction industry.

"The implications of high levels of sun exposure are an occupational health and safety concern that has legislative support in NSW. Companies need to be aware of their responsibilities and work to promote sun protection on work sites. Information about outdoor worker skin protection is available from WorkCover NSW and the NSW Cancer Council," says Dr Cioffi.

"Further research will also help health authorities develop new ways of targeting construction workers. Future campaigns may be more effective if they are implemented on actual construction sites and include strategies that actively coach workers to use better sun protective practices."


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Amanda Whibley
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