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Occupational Skin Cancer: What you need to know

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Australia is known for having one of the highest rates of skin cancer worldwide. Statistically, two out of three Australians will develop skin cancer by the time they are 70.

In 2019, it was estimated that 1.6 billion people were exposed to UV radiation while working outdoors. According to the Cancer Council, people who are required to work outdoors due to the nature of their occupation are five to ten times more likely to develop skin cancer.

What is Skin Cancer?

Over exposure to UV radiation can cause damage to the skin cells, causing skin cancer to develop.

There are three types of skin cancer, each involving a different type of skin cell.

  1. Basal cell carcinoma: This is the most common type of skin cancer and involves the basal cells. This type of skin cancer can develop at a slower pace and, if untreated, can cause damage to other tissue and organs.
  2. Squamous cell carcinoma: This type of skin cancer involves the squamous cells. It is less common than basal cell carcinoma but develops at a faster pace. It can also cause damage to other tissue and organs if left untreated.
  3. Melanoma: While melanoma is the least common type of skin cancer, it is the most dangerous. Melanoma can grow rapidly, cause secondary cancer, and can be fatal.

Am I at risk of developing skin cancer at work?

If your occupation requires you to spend all or part of the day working outdoors, you are at an increased risk of skin cancer. It is common for skin cancer to take 15 – 20 years to develop after exposure.

Occupations and industries especially at risk due to the outdoor nature of the work include:

  • Farmers
  • Painters
  • Plumbers
  • Heavy vehicle drivers
  • Animal/horticultural
  • Handypersons
  • Electrical and communications workers
  • Automobile drivers
  • Construction workers
  • Engineers
  • Civil contractors
  • Warehousing
  • Miners
  • Carpenters
  • Vehicle trades
  • Emergency workers
  • Passenger transport
  • Machine operators
  • Scientists
  • PE teachers and fitness instructors
  • Those who work around water – e.g., lifeguards, fishermen, marine workers.
  • Outdoor council workers

There are a number of factors that may impact your exposure to UV radiation, including:

  • Geographical location.
  • The time of year and time of day that you are working outdoors.
  • The frequency and length of exposure.
  • If there are any reflective surfaces or photosensitisers nearby.
  • The preventative measures in place.

What are the signs and symptoms of skin cancer?

Skin cancers can appear on the body as a new or existing spot that changes in colour, size, and/or shape.

It is important to regularly check your skin for any new or changing freckles or moles. According to the Cancer Council, you should look for the following when checking for signs of skin cancer:

  • New moles.
  • Moles that increase in size.
  • An outline of a mole that becomes notched.
  • A spot that changes colour from brown to black or is varied.
  • A spot that becomes raised or develops a lump within it.
  • The surface of a mole becoming rough, scaly or ulcerated.
  • Moles that itch or tingle.
  • Moles that bleed or weep.
  • Spots that look different from the others.

Experiencing changes like this to your skin may not mean that you have developed skin cancer, but it is important to discuss them with your GP.

What can I do to protect myself from sun exposure at work?

By law, your employer has the highest duty of care to ensure that you are protected from foreseeable injury and illness, which includes taking steps to protect you from harmful levels of UV exposure.  

According to the Cancer Council, an employer should assess the risk of UV exposure to their employees and take the following protective measures:

  1. Engineering controls: such as providing shade and tinting windows.
  2. Administrative controls: such as planning indoor work when UV levels are at their highest, and outdoor work when they are at their lowest.
  3. Personal protective equipment (PPE) and clothing: such as sun-protective work clothing, hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen.

To protect yourself from UV radiation, you should use a combination of the following:

  • Wear a hat;
  • Wear sunglasses;
  • Wear covered clothing;
  • Apply sunscreen every two hours; and
  • Keep in the shade where possible.

Am I eligible for WorkCover compensation if I have skin cancer? How can I prove that it was caused by work?

A worker diagnosed with skin cancer may be entitled to WorkCover compensation based on the nature of their employment (whether current or former employment).

It must be shown that the nature of your employment significantly increased the risk of you developing skin cancer, rather than you proving that your current or past employment with a specific employer is the actual cause.

A worker diagnosed with an occupational disease may be entitled to claim WorkCover compensation for:

  • Weekly loss of income benefits
  • Medical and like expenses
  • Impairment Benefit (no fault lump sum)
  • In some circumstances, damages for pain and suffering and loss of earnings

You may also be entitled to other benefits regardless of whether you qualify for WorkCover compensation, including total and permanent disablement benefits from your superannuation policy. 

What to do if you think you have occupational skin cancer

If someone considers they may have occupational skin cancer, they should see their general practitioner or specialist to determine if they have any conditions or diseases that may be due to the nature of their employment. It is important they give an occupational history. Given that the period between exposure and the onset of symptoms can be lengthy by decades for some diseases and illness, early preventative measures and detection is recommended. We also recommend you contact our specialist legal team who can help support you through this process.