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Real risk to newbies working on orchards

Putting Kiwis unused to working outdoors onto orchards under the punishing Hawke’s Bay sun during the current labour shortage is a recipe for trouble unless workers and their employers take maximum care, says specialist dermatologist Juber Hafiji.

“New Zealand has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world and here in Hawke’s Bay we have the highest rates in New Zealand. There is a reason for that – long hours in the hot sun without enough protection. Yes, we have a wonderful climate, but we cannot stay out in the sun working all day without maximum protection.”

– Dr Juber Hafiji

The Government announced this week that 2000 RSE workers, predominately from Pacific Islands, will be allowed into New Zealand to help pick summer crops. However, industry feedback is that thousands more people would be needed.

That will lead to a continued focus on encouraging Kiwis into the fields. As well as not being used to taking care of their skin in punishing conditions, many will have light skin particularly susceptible to sunburn, and therefore will have increased risk of developing skin cancer. People with darker skin also need to take care. While less susceptible to skin cancer, they are not immune.

There needs to be strong advice on what they should be wearing and mandatory sun screen application, at least half an hour before sun exposure and every two hours thereafter, says Dr Hafiji.

“They will be sweating, which means sunscreen will need to reapplied more frequently than you might otherwise, and people should be wearing light cotton clothing that covers as much of their bodies as possible – not singlets and shorts.”

Dr Hafiji says people wonder why RSE workers wear plenty of clothing while working outdoors in the heat. “It’s probably true that they are used to the heat so it is not so hard on them to fully cover up, but it’s also because they know how harsh the sun is from living under it on their home islands and working in it here every summer.”

If thousands of Kiwi workers spend the next three to four months working full-time outdoors without adequate protection, there will be consequences in the future, he says. “As well as very high skin cancer rates in general, we have the second-highest rate of the most dangerous of the skin cancers, melanoma, (after Australia). I can’t stress this enough. We need to take this seriously and make it a major part of health and safety planning for companies with staff working outdoors, if it is not already. We cannot let this be a tick-box exercise,” says Dr Hafiji.

Ministry of Health statistics show that each year more people die of skin cancer than from car crashes in New Zealand.

Helpful information for employers and staff on keeping safe under the sun has been prepared by WorkSafe.