Alarming joint estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) reveal that nearly one in three deaths resulting from non-melanoma skin cancer can be attributed to outdoor work under the sun. These statistics, unveiled in a report published in Environment International, underscore the urgent need for action to prevent this serious workplace hazard and the loss of lives it incurs.
Sun-Exposed Workers: A Growing Health Concern
The research conducted by WHO and ILO underscores a disturbing trend in skin cancer cases. Moreover, the report finds that outdoor workers bear a significant and increasing burden of non-melanoma skin cancer, necessitating immediate intervention.
The joint estimates reveal that a staggering 1.6 billion individuals of working age (15 years or older) were exposed to solar ultraviolet radiation while working outdoors in 2019, equivalent to 28% of the global working-age population. Shockingly, in that same year, almost 19,000 people in 183 countries lost their lives to non-melanoma skin cancer due to occupational sun exposure. A striking 65% of these victims were male.
Urgent Call for Action
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, emphasized the gravity of the issue, stating,
“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.”
The estimates confirm that occupational exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation is the third-highest attributable work-related risk factor for cancer deaths globally. Over two decades, from 2000 to 2019, skin cancer deaths linked to on-the-job sunlight exposure nearly doubled, surging by 88% from 10,088 deaths in 2000 to 18,960 deaths in 2019.
Gilbert F. Houngbo, ILO Director-General, highlighted the preventable nature of these tragedies, saying,
“Death caused by unprotected exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation while working is largely preventable through cost-effective measures. It is urgent that governments, employers, 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 can save thousands of lives every year.”
Immediate Action Required
The WHO report calls for immediate action to safeguard outdoor workers from hazardous sunlight exposure. Given that skin cancer often develops after years or decades of exposure, protecting workers from solar ultraviolet radiation from a young working age is paramount.
Governments should establish, implement, and enforce policies and regulations to protect outdoor workers. This includes providing shade, shifting working hours away from solar noon, offering education and training, and equipping workers with sunscreen and protective clothing like broad-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts, and long trousers. These protective measures should be in place when the ultraviolet index, a scale rating the amount of skin-damaging ultraviolet radiation, reaches a level of 3 or higher.
To support these efforts, WHO, ILO, the World Meteorological Organization, and the United Nations Environment Programme have recently launched the SunSmart Global UV App. This app assists outdoor workers in estimating their exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation, enabling them to take necessary precautions.
Raising Awareness and Early Detection
Efforts to reduce skin cancer risks also include raising workers’ awareness about the dangers of occupational exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation and offering services and programs for early detection of skin cancer. Protecting the health and lives of outdoor workers is an urgent priority in the battle against this preventable disease.