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Construction workers urged to be ‘sun aware’ through SMS messages

Seeing builders stripped to the waist as they work on construction sites in the summer could be a thing of the past, thanks to a new project that will send personalised SMS warnings direct to their smartphones.

Researchers at Heriot-Watt University will work with colleagues from the Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM) and construction companies BAM Nuttall, Laing O’Rourke, Bovis Homes, Watkin Jones and City Building to change the behaviour of construction workers, minimising the risk of skin cancer and maximising the health benefits of the ‘sunshine vitamin’, D.

The project, commissioned by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), will aim to reduce workers’ exposure to UV radiation among those at risk of high exposure, or increase exposure and encourage dietary changes among those who may not get enough sunshine to synthesise the vitamin D.

Speaking about the project, Professor John Cherrie of Heriot-Watt University’s School of Life Sciences said:

“The work is about exposure to sunlight, or the lack of it, and health of construction workers.

“It is vital that construction workers get the right amount of sun and of the ‘sunshine vitamin’, D, without getting sunburned, which increases their risk of developing skin cancer.

“In February we don’t really get any UV and so we rely on diet – eating things like oily fish – as the source of vitamin D. However, many people have a relatively poor diet in this respect and it’s difficult for them to get sufficient vitamin D through food alone. Meanwhile, in the summer most people get sufficient sun to synthesise vitamin D but the danger here is that we get sunburnt and increase the risk of skin cancer. The main objective of the project is to provide a nuanced message to workers: in the summer cover up and protect your skin and in the winter choose a diet rich in vitamin D.”

Previous research, commissioned by IOSH, into work attitudes to sun safety in the construction sector found that two thirds of construction workers outside for an average of nearly seven hours a day thought they were not at risk or were unsure if they were.

More than half (59 per cent) of those questioned by researchers reported having sunburn – a major contributor to skin cancer – at least once in the last year.

IOSH is now raising awareness of, and providing advice for businesses and workers on, the risks of solar radiation as part of its No Time to Lose campaign on work-related cancers.

IOSH executive director of policy Shelley Frost said: “With some simple measures we can ensure people who work outside, including construction workers, are not exposed to unhealthy levels of UV rays.

“Work-related skin cancer is avoidable but businesses and their employees hold the key to beating it. This new research into behavioural safety will enhance our understanding of how the construction sector can manage the risks.”

The issue of communicating about sun safety is complicated in Britain because there is a large part of the year when most of us don’t get enough sunshine to synthesise the vitamin D we need to keep us healthy.

The messages will be personalised, depending on workers’ awareness of the issues, to increase the chances of influencing them to change their behaviour.

SMS messages have been shown to be effective in a number of other health promotion campaigns such as prompting patients to take their medication and in modifying diet to help prevent diabetes.

If proved to work, the approach could easily be adapted for use with other health and safety risks where individual worker behaviour is a key risk factor, for example, in relation to musculoskeletal injuries from lifting heavy loads or protection against noise exposure using personal hearing protection.