As the Australian Safety & Compensation Council winds down before its transformation into Safe Work Australia, it is leaving with a flurry of activity. The legacy that had most immediate appeal was the revised Guidance Note for the Protection of Workers from the Ultraviolet Radiation in Sunlight. This is the most relevant and contemporary approach to UV as a workplace issue for many years and deserves to be carefully considered.
The need is great. The report includes these justifications
- Australia and New Zealand have the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world (Ferlay J, Bray F, Pisani P, Parkin D. GLOBOCAN 2002. Cancer incidence, mortality and prevalence worldwide. IARC CancerBase No. 5, version 2.0. Lyon: IARCPress, 2004)
- At least 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer before the age of 70 (Staples M, Elwood M, Burton R, Williams J, Marks R, Giles G. Non-melanoma skin cancer in Australia: the 2002 national survey and trends since 1985. Medical Journal of Australia 2006; 184: 6-10); and
- Skin cancer costs the Australian health system around $300 million annually, which is the highest cost of all cancers (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Health system expenditures on cancer and other neoplasms in Australia, 2000 – 01. Canberra: AIHW2005).
The report lists the following skin cancer contributory factors
- exposure received during childhood
- participation in outdoor work and leisure activities resulting in increased exposure to solar UV radiation
- because of higher solar UV exposures, the closer people live to the equator, the more likely they are to develop skin cancer. Queensland has a higher rate of diagnosed skin cancers than Tasmania
- solar UV radiation intensity increases with height above sea level
- solar UV radiation is at its greatest intensity between the hours of 10.00 am and 2.00pm, although dangerous levels of UV radiation can still be experienced outside those hours. (Note: These times should be adjusted to 11.00 am and 3.00 pm when there is daylight saving.)
- the risk of skin cancer is greatest in people with a fair complexion, blue eyes and freckles, who tan poorly and burn easily, but others, for example, individuals who have Dysplastic Naevi Syndrome, are also at risk, and
- there is an increased risk in people who have already had a skin cancer or Keratoses diagnosed.
These are the bases for a good, contemporary and useful workplace policy on UV protection.
Earlier this century the Australian Defence Force established the F-111 Deseal-Reseal Health Care Scheme to compensate workers who may have been affected through exposure to chemicals while cleaning F111 fighter aircraft between 1977 and the late 1990s.
A parliamentary inquiry has been established to further investigate the issue of compensation. In the 29 July 2008 edition of The Australian newspaper details of the work exposures have been restated.
“More than 800 RAAF personnel were forced to do the work on the fuel tanks, removing old sealant using chemicals.
The work was done because of a basic flaw in the design of the aircraft — their fuel tanks did not include a bladder, and the sealant used on rivets to stop leaking had to be replaced at regular intervals.”
Details of the impact of this work on workers and their families have also been restated. Ian Fraser, Queensland president of the F-111 Deseal-Reseal support group has said that
“former workers now suffer temper swings, drug abuse and broken marriages — and some had committed suicide.
A significant number have died from cancer, which Mr Fraser’s organisation says is directly attributable to them being made to work with the chemicals — particularly one known as SR51.”
Those OHS professionals who have read Professor Andrew Hopkins’ book “Safety, Risk and Culture” should be familiar with the case as Hopkins investigated the issue and devoted a chapter to his book on the F111 Deseal/Reseal process. A review of the Hopkins book is available online as is a useful article by Hopkins on safety culture.
It is worth remembering that exposure to chemicals and inadequate protection is not something from the developing nations or from Western industrial history. These workers faced unacceptable risks within the last twenty years.
Exposure to ultraviolet light is a risk for outdoor workers, particularly, that need to be managed well. The best way to manage this is a point of debate in OHS management circles but I thought the medical argument on skin cancers and melanoma was over. Apparently not.
According to an article at BMJ Online, Associate Professor Scott Menzies says
“Sun exposure is clearly a major cause of this disease [melanoma]”.
Sam Shuster is not so sure.
“We need to know much more before we can balance the biological books on ultraviolet radiation, even if we can now close the chapter on melanoma.”
When you are discussing occupational safety with your occupational physician (assuming you have one) bring these articles to their attention so that any skin cancer management program you operate is as valid and robust as it can be. In OHS, a contemporary state of knowledge is an important base.