A joint report from the the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) have uncovered a deeply concerning trend: nearly one in three deaths from non-melanoma skin cancer is directly attributed to outdoor employment. This disconcerting statistic underscores a pressing issue in the contemporary workforce, with the research, recently published in Environment International, estimating that almost 19,000 lives were lost in 2019 alone.
Non-melanoma skin cancers, predominantly basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), are the focus of this alarming revelation. Unlike their more notorious counterpart, melanoma, these cancers are generally less aggressive but still pose a significant health risk, especially when linked to occupational sun exposure. The joint estimates indicate that a staggering 1.6 billion people of working age (15 years or older) were exposed to solar ultraviolet radiation while engaged in outdoor work in 2019, constituting a substantial 28% of the global working-age population. This exposure resulted in almost 19,000 deaths reported in 183 countries, with a notable 65% of the victims being male.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, underscores the gravity of the situation: “Unprotected exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation at work is a major cause of occupational skin cancer. However, effective solutions exist to shield workers from the sun’s harmful rays and prevent the lethal consequences.”
The repercussions of occupational exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation are now acknowledged as the work-related risk factor with the third-highest attributable burden of cancer deaths globally, according to the estimates. Astonishingly, between 2000 and 2019, skin cancer deaths attributable to occupational exposure to sunlight nearly doubled, surging by 88% from 10,088 deaths in 2000 to a staggering 18,960 deaths in 2019.
Gilbert F. Houngbo, ILO Director-General, underscores the urgency of addressing this preventable cause of death: “Death caused by unprotected exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation while working is largely preventable through cost-effective measures. It is urgent that governments, employers, and workers, along with their representatives, collaborate to reduce the occupational risk of UV exposure. This concerted effort can save thousands of lives every year.”
The call for immediate action extends to the implementation of comprehensive measures aimed at protecting outdoor workers from hazardous sunlight exposure. Given that skin cancer often develops after prolonged exposure, the report advocates for the establishment, implementation, and enforcement of policies and regulations. These measures encompass providing shaded areas, adjusting working hours to avoid the solar noon peak, offering education and training, and equipping workers with sunscreen and personal protective clothing.
Governments are strongly urged to enforce these protective measures when the ultraviolet index, a scale rating the amount of skin-damaging ultraviolet radiation, reaches 3 or higher. As part of a collaborative initiative, WHO, ILO, the World Meteorological Organization, and the United Nations Environment Programme have recently launched the SunSmart Global UV App. This innovative application empowers outdoor workers to estimate their exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation and take necessary precautions accordingly.
In addition to these preventive measures, the report underscores the critical need to raise workers’ awareness concerning occupational exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation, its direct link to skin cancer, and the provision of services and programs for the early detection of skin cancer.
As the global workforce grapples with this escalating threat, the WHO and ILO issue a joint appeal to governments, employers, and workers to unite in creating a safe and healthy working environment. This collaborative effort is essential to not only save lives but also prevent the tragic loss of workers due to entirely preventable workplace hazards. The urgency of immediate and comprehensive action cannot be overstated in the face of this alarming rise in workplace-related skin cancer deaths.