By Ada Brainsky, M.D., Medical Director, Health Advocate
Skin cancer and the hazards of sun exposure—its major cause—typically gains awareness as the warmer months approach. But skin cancer is a year-round concern, and a growing one for everyone, including employers. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S., affecting more people each year than all other cancers combined. One in five people in the U.S. will develop skin cancer by age 70.
Each year, nearly 5 million people are treated for skin cancer, at an estimated annual cost of $8.1 billion. Furthermore, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that skin cancers cause a significant loss of productivity in the U.S. workforce. Fortunately, most skin cancers can be prevented and, if found early, can be cured.
Employers can play an important role in helping protect workers from becoming a statistic.
Getting the Message Across
Incorporating sun-safety messages and programs in the workplace can improve health outcomes and save money. These messages should underscore that skin cancer is a year-round concern for everyone, no matter where you live or work, or what your age or the color of your skin.
The main emphasis should be to reduce the overexposure to the harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which comes from sunlight, sun lamps and tanning beds. The damaging effects of the sun build over time. The more exposure to UV radiation over a lifetime, the higher the risk of developing skin cancer.
The most common type of skin cancer, non-melanoma (squamous or basal cell), tends to occur in areas of the body exposed to sunlight and can usually be cured because it grows slowly. However, if left untreated, the cancer can become large and spread inside the body.
The second type of skin cancer, melanoma, accounts for about one percent of all skin cancers in the U.S., but it causes most of the skin cancer deaths because it is aggressive and more likely to invade nearby tissues and spread to distant parts of the body. Risk factors include having a history of many blistering sunburns as a child or teenager, having several large or many small moles, and having a family history of unusual moles or melanoma.
Targeting All Workers Is Essential
Sun protection messaging is especially important for outdoor workers, but all workers should be made aware of the risk of overexposure to the sun. For example, employees who work in direct sunlight through windows or who drive regularly as part of their job are at risk of overexposure to UV rays through glass. Additionally, indoor workers may be more likely to have intense, intermittent sun exposure during recreational time on weekends or during vacations. This puts them at increased risk of melanoma.
Messages should encourage employees to visit a dermatologist for a full-body skin exam to check for any abnormalities, as well as teach them how to self-check for unusual changes in the color, shape or size of moles or skin spots. For best protection, the year-round use of sunscreen with an SPF (sunscreen protection factor) of at least 30 should be encouraged, combined with wearing long sleeves and a broad-brimmed hat, and avoiding sun exposure as much as possible between 10 am and 4 pm when the sun’s rays are most harsh.
Sun Safety Protects Everyone
Keeping employees safe from skin cancer makes good business sense. Workers who develop skin cancer miss work and cause claim costs to rise. It’s also an employer’s legal responsibility to keep employees safe, according to OSHA guidelines. Employers already address the dangers of working in extreme heat, and sun safety can easily be incorporated into these efforts. For example, they can allow for breaks to apply sunscreen or rotate the schedule of workers in in UV-intense positions to reduce exposure.
Some forward-thinking employers provide workers with sunscreen and protective clothing and even offer skin cancer screenings.
No matter what sun-safety strategy an organization chooses, policies designed to support sun protection practices have been shown to be effective, the NIH reports. Employers who encourage behavioral changes and communicate well with their workers can increase the success and adoption of new policies.
Health Advocate provides clinical coaching, resources and a vast array of timely, year-round employee communications to help employees prevent health problems and/or connect with interventions that can detect diseases in their earliest, most treatable stage. Find out how we can help you put the right program in place to help keep your employees and organization healthy and safe. Contact us to learn more.