Nearly one in three deaths from non-melanoma skin cancer is caused by working in the sun, according to joint estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization ( ILO) published today. The research published in International Environment notes that outdoor workers bear a significant and growing burden of non-melanoma skin cancer and calls for measures to prevent this serious workplace hazard and the loss of worker lives it causes.
According to joint estimates, 1.6 billion people of working age (15 years or older) were exposed to solar ultraviolet radiation while working outdoors in 2019, equivalent to 28% of all people of working age. In 2019 alone, nearly 19,000 people in 183 countries died from non-melanoma skin cancer after working outdoors in the sun. The majority (65%) were men.
“Unprotected exposure to solar ultraviolet rays at work is a major cause of work-related skin cancer,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “But there are effective solutions to protect workers from the sun’s harmful rays and prevent their deadly effects.”
Estimates establish that occupational exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation is the work-related risk factor with the third highest attributable burden of cancer deaths worldwide. Between 2000 and 2019, skin cancer deaths attributable to occupational sun exposure almost doubled (increasing by 88%, from 10,088 deaths in 2000 to 18,960 deaths in 2019).
“A safe and healthy working environment is a fundamental right at work,” said Gilbert F. Houngbo, Director-General of the ILO. “Deaths caused by unprotected exposure to solar ultraviolet rays during work are largely preventable through cost-effective measures. There is an urgent need for governments, employers, workers and their representatives to work together within 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.
Based on this research, WHO is calling for more action to protect workers from hazardous outdoor work in the sun. Because skin cancer develops after years or even decades of exposure, workers must be protected from the sun’s ultraviolet rays at work from a young age. Governments should establish, implement and enforce policies and regulations that protect outdoor workers from sun-induced skin cancer by providing shade, shifting working hours outside solar noon , providing education and training and equipping workers with sunscreen and personal protective clothing (such as wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts and long pants). Protective measures should be implemented when the ultraviolet index, a scale assessing the amount of ultraviolet radiation harmful to the skin, is 3 or higher.
The WHO, ILO, World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program recently launched the SunSmart Global UV app that outdoor workers can use to estimate their exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation.
In addition, measures to reduce the risk of skin cancer include raising awareness among workers about the timing of occupational exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation and the fact that it causes skin cancer, as well as to provide services and programs to detect the early signs of skin cancer.
Note to editors:
These estimates are based on a recent WHO report on a systematic review and meta-analysis, which highlighted that occupational exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation is associated with an approximately 60% increased risk of developing cancer of the skin other than melanoma. This risk estimate was based on a pooled analysis of 25 case-control studies involving 286,131 participants living in 22 countries across three WHO regions. WHO and ILO estimated the number of people exposed to solar ultraviolet radiation at work based on 166 million data points from 763 surveys conducted in 96 countries and territories covering the six WHO regions, which were collected between January 1, 1996 and December 31, 2021.
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. The term “working age” generally refers to the minimum age at which a person is legally permitted to work in a particular jurisdiction. In many countries, the minimum age for employment is 15.