“The Shawshank Redemption” is one of my favorite movies. In one scene, Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, played by Morgan Freeman, is sitting in front of the parole board. He is pouring his heart out to the members of the board when they ask him, “Do you feel rehabilitated?” Red tells them, “I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid … I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are.” I, too, wish I could go back and talk to my younger self about one thing in particular – it sure would be saving me some heartache today.
I started working for an electric utility, SCE&G, in 1979, and I have pretty much been outside in the sun every day since. When I started at SCE&G, I worked on the coast near Charleston, South Carolina, where summers are hot and humid, and the sun is direct. Many days after work, my clothes were soaked with sweat, all the way down to my underwear and socks. I even had to dry my boots out every now and then.
When I made lineman in the 1980s, many lineworkers wore long-sleeved shirts and extra-wide shades on their hard hats. They also used company-provided sunscreen. I thought the long sleeves were for protection from creosote on the poles, and the hard hat shades were to shade workers’ eyes. I even asked my foreman, an old-timer named Ronald, “Why do you wear long sleeves? Is it to keep the creosote off your arms?”
“David,” he said, “it’s really not to protect me from creosote – it’s for protection from the sun. I also use this hard-hat shade to keep the sun off my face. You stay out here long enough and you will find out, the sun will get you.”
“What?” I responded. “Old man, you are crazy. Long sleeves are hot, it’s hot enough out here already and that extra shade on your hard hat makes you look funny. I’m not wearing that.”
Ronald just laughed and said, “Suit yourself – you will regret it one day.”
I laughed, too. “Not me,” I said. “I am a young lineman. I am not worried about it.”
Thirty Years Later
Now, fast-forward 30 years. I am sitting in a freezing-cold examining room in a dermatologist’s office. The doctor walks in and says in a matter-of-fact voice, “Mr. Spooner, that spot on your ear has come back as cancerous. We need to remove it ASAP.”
“No way, Doc!” I say.
“Yes, Mr. Spooner, it’s squamous cell carcinoma. This type of cancer is nonaggressive and doesn’t really spread to other parts of the body, but it can lead to disfigurement. The cancer needs to be cut off or it will spread locally.”
I thought to myself, this can’t be happening. But about 90 minutes and 11 stiches later, the cancer was gone. While I was lying on the operating table during the surgery, I was flashing back to my foreman, Ronald, telling me that I “will regret it one day.” Ronald tried to tell me, but that young, stupid kid wouldn’t listen.
In the last five years, this scenario has occurred three more times, and each scenario was the result of spending so much time in the sun without wearing any sun protection. I have had one surgery on my nose, one on my face and one on my arm. And while I haven’t had any surgeries in the past two years, that is likely about to change. I think I’m going to need surgery again because I have had a red bump on my neck for a couple of months that never goes away; I am pretty sure it is cancerous. After having four cases of skin cancer, I have gotten good at diagnosing the spots before the doctor examines them.
Sadly, I am not the only one with this problem. I know of many current and former linemen who have the same problem right now, and some of my friends deal with it on a monthly basis.
So, if you often find yourself in the sun, save yourself the heartache of needing surgeries during which a doctor cuts up your face and other parts of your body, causing scars that will never go away. Save yourself the embarrassment of walking around with gauze and first-aid tape stuck to your face for weeks while you are healing from surgery. All it takes to protect yourself is a little preparation each day. This includes wearing the proper clothing at work; as it turns out, long-sleeved shirts really are not much hotter than short-sleeved shirts, and they protect your arms from sun exposure. In addition, many companies make shades that can easily be added to hard hats to protect your face and ears, just like the kind Ronald used to wear. And although OSHA does not require employers to pay for sunscreen, make sure you use it whether your company supplies it or not, and reapply as needed. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone use sunscreen that offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays; an SPF of 30 or higher; and water resistance.
Just like Red wished he could in “The Shawshank Redemption,” I wish I could go back and talk to that young, stupid kid – me – who thought he knew it all. I would talk some sense into him. Red didn’t listen when he was young and neither did I. Now it’s too late for me, but hopefully you will listen to this old lineman and take the advice that I wouldn’t listen to: Protect yourself from the sun. You won’t regret it.
About the Author: David Spooner has worked in the utility industry since 1979, first as a lineman in South Carolina and now for a utility in Hawaii. His focus is keeping employees safe and helping them expand their leadership skills. He can be contacted via LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/davidaspooner/.
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