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Working under the sun causes 1 in 3 deaths from non-melanoma skin cancer

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By: Henrietta Afful

A joint report released by the World Health Organization, WHO, and the International Labour Organization, ILO, says nearly 1 in 3 deaths from non-melanoma skin cancer is caused by working under the sun.

The report, released on Wednesday, November 8, 2023, said outdoor workers carry a large and increasing burden of non-melanoma skin cancer brought about by the exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation.

It therefore called for action to prevent loss of workers’ lives.

Estimates reveal that in 2019, approximately 1.6 billion working-age people aged 15 or older were exposed to solar ultraviolet radiation while working outdoors, equivalent to 28% of the global working-age population.

In the same year under review, almost 19,000 people across 183 countries died from nonmelanoma skin cancer stemming from working outdoors in the sun. The majority (65%), were males.

Third-highest risk at work

“Unprotected exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation at work is a major cause of occupational skin cancer. But there are effective solutions to protect workers from the sun’s harmful rays and prevent their deadly effects,” Director General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said.

The research established that occupational exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation is the third highest work-related risk factor for cancer deaths globally.

Over the period from 2000 to 2019, skin cancer deaths linked to workplace sun exposure nearly doubled, increasing by 88% from 10,088 deaths in 2000 to 18,960 deaths in 2019.

The Director-General of the International Labour Organization, ILO, Gilbert Houngbo, “a safe and healthy working environment is a fundamental right at work.”

Gilbert Houngbo said the deaths due to work exposure are “largely preventable through cost-effective measures”.

 To achieve this, he urged that governments, employers and workers and their representatives, work together in a framework of well-defined rights, responsibilities and duties to reduce the occupational risk of UV exposure.

This he said, “can save thousands of lives every year.”

Policy Recommendations

From this research, the World Health Organization calls for more action to protect workers from hazardous outdoor work in the sunlight stressing on the need for workers to be protected from solar ultraviolet radiation from a young working age.

It urges governments to establish, implement and enforce policies and regulations that protect outdoor workers from sun-induced skin cancer.

Providing shade, shifting working hours away from the solar noon, providing education and training, and equipping workers with sunscreen and personal protective clothing such as broad-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirts and long trousers are some measures the WHO and ILO are pushing for.

Protective measures should be implemented when the ultraviolet index, a scale rating the amount of skin-damaging ultraviolet radiation, is 3 or higher.

To support these efforts, in June last year, WHO, ILO, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme launched the SunSmart Global UV App, that allows outdoor workers to estimate their exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation.

Non-melanoma skin cancer

Non-melanoma skin cancer refers to a group of cancers that develop in the upper layers of the skin. The two main subtypes of this cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.


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