Cancer and construction: Skin cancers

This page tells you about the risks to construction workers from skin cancer.

What is it?

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers. There are two main groups:

  • Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer (NMSC) – this often occurs on areas of exposed skin when outdoors like the neck or head. Harmful ultraviolet radiation (even on cloudy days) damages the skin and can lead to a NMSC developing. The first sign is often a lump or patch on the skin that doesn't heal after a few weeks. These lumps are often red and firm while the patches are mostly flat and scaly. Lesions may be crusty, form an ulcer, bleed and be painful. Most NMSC can be treated, often with a simple operation.
  • Malignant Melanoma – this cancer occurs in the skin cells called melanocytes. These are the cells where the skin pigment melanin is found. It is a rarer but much more serious cancer that can spread to other organs in the body and often proves fatal. The most common sign is the appearance of a new mole or a change in an existing mole. These often have an irregular shape and more than one colour. They can sometimes also be itchy or bleed. Surgery can however be successful if the melanoma is caught early.

How at risk are construction workers?

HSE commissioned research identified construction workers as a significant 'at risk' group with the most common causes being:

  • Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) – this is mainly from natural sunlight. It is primarily a public health issue as the risks not just work related but linked to overall sun exposure (such as holidays or outside activities). However, it is a significant issue for construction workers because of the amount of time they spend outside. The research estimated there were over 800 cases (registrations) of NMSC to construction workers from UVR in 2004 although less than 10 deaths in 2005.
  • Chemicals – some chemicals can also cause skin cancer. The most significant to construction workers have been Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) from products containing coal tar / pitch. The research estimated these caused over 450 cases (registrations) of NMSC in 2004 and fewer than 5 deaths in 2005. These risks are now significantly reduced as petroleum-based alternatives to coal tars are now used.

Can you prevent this risk?

Yes. The NHS gives a number of steps you can take to protect against UVR. These are general precautions applicable to many situations because UVR is primarily a public health issue. HSE also has advice on protecting your skin from the sun.

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Updated 2023-11-21