In photographs, television and film, the dominant image of a farmer usually includes a baseball hat -- a fashion choice that could be unhealthy in the long run, according to an expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.
Agricultural baseball caps, called "gimme" hats because they usually feature advertising for seed companies or heavy equipment manufacturers, provide little protection from the sun, says Dennis Murphy, professor of agricultural engineering. "Baseball caps don't have a wide enough brim to offer much protection," Murphy says.
Sunshine is crucial for crops, but for farmers, prolonged unprotected exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays can lead to skin cancers. Using the correct headwear could mean the difference between life and death.
Baseball caps, by far the most popular farming hat, really only protect the front part of the face, Murphy says. Wide-brimmed hats -- such as cowboy hats, Australian bush hats and straw hats like those worn by Amish farmers -- are an improvement, but even wide-brimmed hats are not foolproof.
"You really need a hat that will protect the neck, ears and temples," Murphy says.
The best style to wear is commonly known as the "French Foreign Legion" hat. This style features the generous brim of a baseball cap and adds a protective cloth to cover the neck and ears.
Another style to consider is the deerstalker cap, a double-brimmed style that covers the neck. The deerstalker style is most commonly associated with the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
According to medical statistics, more than 600,000 Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer this year. Murphy says common sites for skin cancer include the face, tips of ears, hands, neck, forearms and lips -- areas that farmers typically leave uncovered.
To prevent skin cancer, farmers should use sunscreen regularly. Murphy suggests using a product with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15, which will block 94 percent of the ultraviolet B rays most likely to cause skin cancer. The SPF factor is a rating that multiplies the protection naturally provided by the skin. For example, if your skin normally burns after an hour, using an SPF 15 sunscreen allows you 15 hours of exposure before burning.
Murphy recommends dressing safely as well. Wear lightweight long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Light-colored clothing reflects heat and sunlight. Workers never should go shirtless.
Sunglasses also are a must. Prolonged exposure to the sun can damage retinas, corneas and the lens of the eye.
The sun is strongest between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Dermatologists recommend not working during these hours, but this is not a practical solution for most farmers, which is why the use of sunscreen and protective headwear by farmers is so important.
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