Outdoor workers at high risk for skin cancer

Sunscreen is just for the beach, right? Not according to a study comparing sun exposure during leisure and work activities recently released.

Researchers Jean Shoveller, Asst. Prof. Jason Rivers, Dermatology and Assoc. Prof. Chris Lovato, Health Care and Epidemiology, conducted the first national survey into the issue. Results showed that those who work outdoors are at high risk for skin cancer and need to protect themselves.

A third of the outdoor workers surveyed did not take any precautions to protect themselves from the sun. A third didn't wear hats, two-thirds didn't use sunscreen and half did not wear sunglasses or avoid the sun during the peak ultraviolet (UV) hours from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"Sun exposure is an emerging public health issue, but many people just aren't in the habit of protecting themselves," says Shoveller, a research associate at the Institute of Health Promotion Research and director of the project. "We'd like to see it become as automatic as doing up your seatbelt."

Besides sunburns, which are linked to melanoma -- the most serious form of skin cancer -- an accumulated exposure over time is also a risk, Shoveller says.

"Although advertisers tend to associate a tan with health, it actually represents damage to the skin and that damage can build up over time," she says. "That's why it's important for everyone, especially workers who are more exposed to sun, to routinely protect themselves."

Sixty-thousand new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed this year in Canada alone with the incidence of melanoma rising dramatically. In the 1930s, one in 1,500 people died of the disease; now one in 90 are at risk.

Shoveller and Lovato presented the study results recently at the Fifth National Health Promotion Research Conference in Halifax.

UBC is sharing the study data with universities and health organizations across Canada to help create programs to prevent skin cancer.

The study will also serve as a benchmark for health educators to measure changes in the public's attitudes and behavior regarding sun exposure.

The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute of Canada, the Canadian Dermatology Association and Environment Canada.