The turf industry is linked to the sun in every way. Climate plays such an important part in the management decisions turf professionals make that weather forecasts are keenly viewed.
But what about the link between the sun and our health? STRI senior project manager, Gordon Howat, and Dr Jason Fang discuss the increased risk of skin cancer outdoor workers face every day.
Why it’s important to me
On a personal level, as a consultant at STRI I regularly work outdoors, often in hot climates in Europe and I have a younger brother Jamie, working as a greenkeeper at Kingsbarns Golf Club.
Sadly, our mum lost her battle with skin cancer in 2010 and it is a subject that I’m keen to increase awareness of.
The obvious headline link between sun and the health of an individual is skin cancer (and the link between exposure and increased risk). But it isn’t all bad news:
- Sunshine produces more of the mood lifting chemical serotonin. Lack of sunlight is, therefore, linked to the development of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
- Sunshine is associated with good weather and in turn people are more active during these periods
- The body creates Vitamin D via direct sun exposure on our skin, which is important for ensuring bone strength and density. Studies have shown links between insufficient levels of Vitamin D with depression, heart disease, weight gain and some cancers
In simple terms, a cancer of the skin is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells on the skin. As is often the case, early intervention improves the sufferer’s long-term prognosis.
The principal cause of skin cancer is prolonged exposure to UV (Ultraviolet) light. Excessive UV light exposure will cause sunburn which damages the DNA of skin cells. This in turn can allow these cells to multiply out of control and become cancerous.
It’s important to understand that whilst multiple events of over-exposure increase risk to skin cancer occurrence, it is also true that continued exposure to UV light at levels that do not result in sunburn may also increase the risk of the disease occurring.
Staying safe in the sun
As is always the case, prevention is better than cure – as this is particularly relevant to our health. So what precautions should those working outdoors be realistically taking?
- Avoid over-exposure, although as we work outside this is difficult, so structure your working day to minimise exposure
- Take precautions to avoid sunburn:
- Wear a broad-brimmed hat
- Apply high factor sunscreen to exposed skin and use high factor lip protection
- Wear long sleeved shirts
- Avoid tanning beds
- Check yourself or seek assistance regularly and from a medical professional, particularly if you observe any physical changes of the skin
Early detection is critical – what should we be looking for?
There are several possible red flags for skin cancer and it is important that all of these are understood and monitored for.
Physical changes are the best indicators, these changes can be in many forms:
- Occurrence of new moles on the skin
- Moles that change in size, shape, colour, height or that bleed or become itchy
- Open sores that do not heal properly
- Raised areas on the skin
- Scaly patches on the skin
If these symptoms occur, your GP will be able to advise on whether a specialist dermatologist is required to review the symptoms.
Dr Jason Fang said: “Skin cancers and in particular melanomas are highly aggressive, spreading quickly to other parts of the body. Sadly, prognosis is
often poor as people may not seek help early enough.
“This is especially true as moles are often small and innocuous or in a difficult to monitor area such as the back. However, most skin cancers that are detected and treated early are cured.”
High risk groups
- People with fair skin, freckles, red or blonde hair and blue eyes
- People who are regularly exposed to the sun, particularly if
- sunburn occurs
- People who have a high number of “atypical” moles (unusual
- looking benign moles)
- People with a family history of melanoma
- People who use sun-beds
- People with weakened immune systems
- People with regular exposure to some chemicals
What are turf industry employers doing to minimise risk to the health of their staff?
There is no legal obligation to provide sunscreen, however in my opinion there is clearly a duty of care and employers should consider the PPE at Work Regulation 1992 that states employees should be provided with suitable Personal Protective Equipment at work – and this should consider weather conditions that staff will experience.
A reason cited for some organisations not providing sunscreen is the possibility of an allergic reaction to the products provided or poor application and use of the product.
Loch Lomond Golf Club
Having worked at Loch Lomond Golf Club in 1997, I was keen to understand what precautions were in place at the club and was delighted that Golf Course Superintendent, David Cole, has taken a very pro-active approach.
“Staff welfare is at the core of everything we do at Loch Lomond Golf Club, and Health and Safety is very much a part of this,” said David.
“Despite the high levels of rainfall that we suffer, there are some great days here also, as was experienced for a large part of this past summer. We are happy to supply suitable sun protection products to the workforce and it is part of the management’s responsibility to ensure staff understand the risk of sun exposure and the precautions we all must take.”
Kingsbarns Golf Links
Staff at Kingsbarns are also given protection. Greenkeeper, Jamie Howat, said: “In the industry we are all exposed to the elements every day. Whilst safety boots and waterproofs are standard issue to everyone, we are fortunate at Kingsbarns that the club provides sunscreen to staff – I would like this approach to be more common across the turf industry.”
Things to remember
Following examples such as Loch Lomond and Kingsbarns Golf Clubs can only be good for the industry and the health of those working within it. Personal wellbeing is hugely important, and employers and employees must all take responsibility on an issue that is likely to become more and more common.
Despite this article being a bit depressing on subject matter, it is not all doom and gloom. Nearly all skin cancer patients have a positive outlook, assuming early diagnosis and treatment prior to the cancer spreading.
The key advice from Dr Jason Fang is:
“Keep an eye on your skin, look out for any changes especially to moles. If something on the skin doesn’t look right, see your doctor.”