GMW takes the high road to skin cancer prevention

Tuesday 13 March, 2018

It might seem odd to have a native of Scotland championing skin cancer prevention at Goulburn-Murray Water (GMW).

The business operates across northern Victoria, which routinely endures months of extreme ultraviolet radiation and a skin cancer rate among the highest in the world. In contrast, a forgotten scribe once jested how “summer in Scotland is the best day of the year”, with skin cancer rating as a low health concern in that country.

“It’s true where I grew up we didn’t have anything like ‘Slip, Slop Slap’,” Alan, GMW’s General Manager of Corporate Services, said.

“I never wore a hat at school or gave sun protection a second thought when playing outdoors.

“I do recall a family holiday in France where my mother diligently applied sunscreen to us kids – I think it was SPF 3 or 4,” Alan laughed, noting the Australian norm is now a Sun Protection Factor of 50-plus.

However soon after arriving here almost 20 years ago, Alan says he became acutely aware of his vulnerability under the harsh Australian sun.

“I’ve got this pale Scottish skin so I knew I could turn into a cancer-ridden nugget in no time at all,” he said. “Now, with children of my own, I also want to set a good example to ensure they appreciate how important it is to stay protected from the sun.”

With employee health, safety and well-being part of his job, Alan has extended that responsibility to all staff at GMW.

With much of the workforce routinely working outdoors to maintain thousands of gates, meters and other infrastructure along thousands of kilometres of irrigation channel, GMW has long had strict policies relating to sunscreen, long sleeves, long pants, protective eyewear and proper hats.

“My team wanted to extend this awareness by introducing skin cancer checks,” Alan said.

“Two out of every three Australians can expect to be diagnosed with a skin cancer by the time they are 70, so it’s a health concern for everyone whether we work outdoors or not,” he said.

“Skin cancer checks are a way to detect any issue early, which vastly improves the chances of successful treatment.”

GMW brought in Skin Patrol, a mobile clinic able to provide skin checks at the workplace. In GMW’s case, this included staff at offices, depots and work sites across northern Victoria.

In two visits, over December last year and in February, Skin Patrol specialists saw 395 GMW employees in confidential, one-on-one checks. A sizable proportion of staff – 80 – were found to have severe sun damaged skin while 30 others were referred for further investigation of suspect lesions or blemishes. In three cases there was suspicion of the most serious form of skin cancer, melanoma, where every day counts in seeking treatment.

Alan was one of the 30 staff referred for further tests.

“Skin Patrol found this small red lump on my arm, so it was something questionable. They took a close-up photo and gave me a referral letter for further tests,” he said.

After a nervous few days, Alan was given the all-clear. His team was also given positive feedback for the whole program, which reached more than half of all GMW staff with more staff checks planned for the future.

Alan relates the success of the program to its convenience as much as an increased awareness of making skin cancer checks a normal health routine.

“It’s a difficult thing to say no to,” he said. “After all, if it’s offered at your workplace, in your work time and at no charge – you really don’t have an excuse not to have a check done.”

In line with a strategic initiative to contribute to regional development, Alan said GMW would be interested in partnering with other businesses in future Skin Patrol clinics.

“This may in particular help smaller organisations who would otherwise not have the capacity to run such a program,” Alan said.

To enquire about partnership possibilities, email alan.arthur@gmwater.com.au

Fast facts about skin cancer

  • The Cancer Council Australia advises that skin cancer accounts for about 80 per cent of all new diagnosed cancers
  • The majority of skin cancers are caused by sun exposure
  • Anyone can develop skin cancer with the risk increasing with age
  • Early detection is the best defence to avoid surgery or, in more serious cases, disfigurement or death