Compensable Sunshine, Revisted

May 26th, 2009 by

Our blog last week linking skin cancer to workers comp has already generated a few comments. “Workers comp attorney” raises some interesting questions:
(1) How much weight do you give to the person’s leisure activities and/or length of employment? It seems these would certainly be factors in assessing whether the employment is the predominate cause.
When assessing the work-relatedness of skin cancer, claims adjusters will look carefully at non work exposures: hobbies such as hiking, fishing, boating, outdoor sports, surfing, swimming or simply tanning. Balanced against these exposures will be the work setting: outdoors all the time (eg, roofing, migrant farm work, paving) or just incidentally (framing carpentry).
While the case law is still rather limited, there are examples of compensable skin cancers involving a limousine chauffeur (!) in New York and an architect in Texas. [NOTE: a sun screen manufacturer, unsurprisingly, is keeping close track of case law developments!] It is safe to assume that the burden of proof remains on the employee to show that the cancer is work related, but this burden is now supported by substantial medical evidence. Indeed, the existence of government funded education on the risk – here is a CDC link – would tend to support claims of compensability.
As far as length of employment goes, it usually does not matter. As in the case of repetitive motion injuries, the most recent employer is usually on the hook for coverage, even if the employee has only been working for a few weeks.
(2) What steps could employers take to prevent work-related skin cancer other than the mentioned provision of sun screen and policies to enforce dress code?
Employers should just stick with the basics: provide – and enforce the use of – sun screens; require head gear. In the vast majority of exposed workers, this is not happening. There is research showing an increase in skin cancers among Latinos. I wonder if this is related to the negative cultural images associated with protective gear. [NOTE: my teenage daughters hate my wide-brimmed sun hat. It’s just not cool!] [I wear it anyway.]
(3) What about research indicating that some, if not all, sunscreen products are carcinogenic?
While there is some evidence that tanning booths may be associated with cancer, I am not aware of any medical evidence to support a connection between sunscreens and cancer. In any event, the risk of not using a sunscreen far exceeds the risk of using one.
4) What balance should be sought between skin cancer and heat-related illnesses (if any “balance”) as far as prevention is concerned?
Skin and heat protection are not mutually exclusive. People have been covering up in desert cultures for centuries by wearing light colored, loose clothing and head gear. (I hardly need add that American workers would vehemently reject any protective measures that made them resemble middle-eastern sheiks!)
Proactive, Reactive, Inactive?
Another reader wonders how many companies have actually implemented the recommended preventive measures. That’s a great question. Judging by limited observation of workers in the sun, smaller employers have done little if anything to prevent risk. Any time I see a worker in the hot sun, shirtless and hatless, I assume that the cancer issue is simply being ignored.
What, if anything, will mobilize employers to take action to limit sun exposures? It usually comes down to money. Employers who operate in states that view skin cancer as potentially work related will eventually find it cheaper to provide (inexpensive) sunscreens and hats to their workers in the great outdoors. If state courts reject these claims, the workers will bear the burden.
Let’s hope that employers take action before the courts force the issue. We have a known risk and we have proven remedies. Reason says that employers, at a minimum, will immediately share this information with exposed workers. But then again, how often is the voice of reason heard in the American workplace?

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