Tech Forum – Protecting Construction Workers from Melanoma Cancer

Cheryl Stratos

It’s summer and you spend a lot of time working outdoors. You’re wearing all your safety equipment, right? The right boots, pants, helmets, vests…..

Don’t forget your SPF and sun-protective clothing.

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Construction workers have an increased risk of melanoma cancer, and cases are estimated to double by 2060, unless preventative measures aren’t taken fast, according to new research done by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH). Skin cancer is the second most common cancer in construction work (the first is lung cancer).

One in 40 Americans is diagnosed every year with melanoma, a skin cancer primarily caused by sun exposure. In 2023, an estimated 186,680 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in the United States. Of those, 89,070 cases will be in situ (noninvasive), meaning that it is confined to the top layer of skin (the epidermis), and 97,610 cases will be invasive, meaning that the melanoma penetrates the epidermis into the skin’s second layer (the dermis).

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Of the invasive cases, 58,120 will be men, and 39,490 will be women.

Melanoma and other skin cancers are primarily caused by exposure to solar radiation. You can mitigate this risk by protecting your skin with SPF 30+ sunscreen, clothing, or other shade equipment. Since 1992, OSHA has stated that employers must protect workers exposed to the sun on the job and risk serious physical harm or death.

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In the field we tend to focus on our exposure to more immediate hazards, like the ones that can kill us immediately. We often ignore the risk of skin cancer. In fact, every hour of every day, more than two people will die from the disease.

Working in construction, for the most part, you are an outdoor worker exposed to UV radiation both directly from the sun and indirectly as it is reflected from surrounding surfaces. That’s why it’s important to continue wearing sun protection (protective clothing and sunscreen) even when you’re in the shade, for maximum protection.

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Melanoma is an equal-opportunity cancer — it does not discriminate by age, race, or gender.

You can protect through:

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  • Reorganize work: Keep in mind the heat of the day is between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Use shade: There are plenty of options even when working near reflective surfaces with no natural shade. You can have a physical barrier to ward off UV radiation by erecting temporary shade structures.
  • Protective clothing: UV protection clothing increase with the density of the fabric’s weave, and darker colors absorb more UV radiation than lighter colors of the same fabric.
  • Hats: If hard hats are mandatory, various sun protection accessories are available for attaching to helmets, such as broad brims or Legionnaire covers with peaks and flaps at the back and sides.
  • Sunglasses: Eyes are also susceptible to sun damage, wear close­fitting, wrap­around style sunglasses or sunglasses with side shields.
  • Sunscreen: Sunscreen is not a “block­out” workers should not forget to apply protection to lips using either SPF 30+ lip balm or zinc cream.

I know this seems trivial in some regards, especially when there are other hazards on the job, but limiting your sun exposure is worth it. Melanoma is one cancer you don’t want to experience.

In 2009, I was diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Melanoma Cancer. My doctor told me I had six months to live. That’s not the type of reality check anyone wants. It took me six years of treatments, with lots of drug side effects to overcome melanoma cancer. Early detection is key to survival, and a poster with skin cancer screening guidelines should be in your trailer along with a big bottle of SPF Sunscreen.

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Remember, melanoma is not just skin cancer. It can develop anywhere on the body – in your eyes, on your scalp, nails, feet, mouth, and even in your lungs.

Take a few minutes to apply your SPF and wear sun-protective clothing when you are out in the field – these things are just as important as wearing a hard hat and are part of your daily protection. It too could save your life!

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Cheryl Stratos is director of marketing and sales at the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) and a skin cancer survivor/advocate.

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