Science and Technology

Exposure to sunlight contributes to 1 in 3 fatalities due to non-melanoma skin cancer

skin cancer

Approximately 1 in 3 deaths resulting from non-melanoma skin cancer is linked to outdoor employment, according to collaborative findings released today by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO). Research published in Environment International underscores the substantial and escalating burden of non-melanoma skin cancer among outdoor workers, prompting a call for proactive measures to mitigate this significant workplace threat and prevent associated fatalities.

The joint estimates reveal that in 2019, 1.6 billion individuals of working age (15 years or older) were exposed to solar ultraviolet radiation while engaged in outdoor work, constituting 28% of the global working-age population. In the same year, nearly 19,000 people across 183 countries succumbed to non-melanoma skin cancer due to occupational sun exposure. The majority of these cases (65%) involved male individuals.

Sun skin cancer

Unprotected exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation at work is a major cause of occupational skin cancer

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, emphasized, “Unprotected exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation at work is a major cause of occupational skin cancer.” He underscored the existence of effective solutions to shield workers from harmful sun rays and prevent their fatal consequences.

These estimates identify occupational exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation as the third-highest work-related risk factor contributing to cancer deaths globally. Between 2000 and 2019, deaths from skin cancer attributable to occupational sunlight exposure nearly doubled, increasing by 88% from 10,088 deaths in 2000 to 18,960 deaths in 2019.

Gilbert F. Houngbo, ILO Director-General, emphasized the fundamental right to a safe and healthy working environment. He asserted that deaths resulting from unprotected exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation during work are largely preventable through cost-effective measures, calling for collaborative efforts among governments, employers, workers, and their representatives to establish well-defined rights, responsibilities, and duties to reduce the occupational risk of UV exposure.

Unprotected exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation at work is a major cause of occupational skin cancer

In light of the research, WHO advocates for increased action to safeguard workers from the hazards of outdoor work in sunlight. As skin cancer may develop over years or decades of exposure, protective measures should commence from a young working age. Governments are urged to enact and enforce policies and regulations ensuring the protection of outdoor workers through provisions such as shade, adjusted working hours away from solar noon, education, training, and the provision of sunscreen and protective clothing. Implementation of protective measures is advised when the ultraviolet index, a scale indicating the level of skin-damaging ultraviolet radiation, reaches 3 or higher.

To assist outdoor workers in estimating their exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation, WHO, ILO, the World Meteorological Organization, and the United Nations Environment Programme have launched the SunSmart Global UV App.

Additionally, measures to reduce the risk of skin cancer include raising awareness among workers regarding the timing and causes of occupational exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation, as well as providing services and programs for early detection of skin cancer.

solar ultraviolet radiation

The estimates are based on a recent WHO report of a systematic review and meta-analysis, highlighting that occupational exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation is associated with an estimated 60% increased risk of developing non-melanoma skin cancer. The risk estimate was derived from a pooled analysis of 25 case-control studies involving 286,131 participants in 22 countries across three WHO regions. The number of people exposed to solar ultraviolet radiation at work was estimated by WHO and ILO based on 166 million data points from 763 surveys covering 96 countries and areas across all six WHO regions. Data collection occurred between January 1, 1996, and December 31, 2021. Non-melanoma skin cancer encompasses cancers that develop in the upper layers of the skin, with basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma being the two main subtypes. “Working age” typically refers to the minimum age at which a person is legally permitted to work, with the minimum working age being 15 years in many countries.

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