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When mini-breaks just don't cut it

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The mini-break may have made the perfect date for Bridget Jones but, when it comes to employee rights, companies need to make sure they do everything to enable workers to take a full and uninterrupted 20-minute rest break.

The warning comes after Network Rail was found by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) to have failed to take the necessary steps to facilitate full 20-minute rest breaks, despite the employee being in a role that has special provision for alternative arrangements. 

The case was brought by a railway signalman who was responsible for running single-manned signal boxes on eight-hour shifts.  Due to train timetables, he could not take an uninterrupted break of 20 minutes and had to be on-call when he did take a break.  As a result, he argued that he had been denied his legal entitlement under the Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR).

All workers are entitled to an uninterrupted rest break away from their usual working location of 20 minutes after six hours of working under the WTR.  It must be known to be a rest break before it starts, so if someone has had an unexpected gap of 20 minutes in their day, this cannot be treated as the rest break retrospectively. 

If a worker is on call during a break then it will not count as a rest break, but Regulation 24 of the WTR says that some workers will be excluded from these provisions as it may not be feasible to schedule the rest break in the usual way. However, they must be allowed an equivalent period of compensatory rest instead.  This applies to railway workers and covers other roles, such as paramedics and security staff, and lone workers. 

Although Network Rail provided a relief signaller in some regions, they did not do so in Mr Crawford’s region. Instead, they told him that he could take shorter breaks during his shifts “between periods of operational demand” and that these shorter breaks would add up to more than 20 minutes. 

At the first hearing, the Employment Tribunal held that Network Rail had acted correctly and that, when added together, the short breaks were compliant with the requirements of compensatory rest.  Mr Crawford appealed and the EAT ruled against Network Rail, stating that if it were possible to provide workers with a full uninterrupted 20-minute break then that should happen.  As Network Rail were providing the relief signalman in other regions, they must have been able to take steps to provide the same option in Mr Crawford’s region.

Minimum rest periods are for health and safety purposes and, once again, this ruling demonstrates that tribunals will not allow employers to duck their responsibility.  

As with all terms of employment, the starting point should be a clear policy that everyone knows and understands, especially where workers are in environments in which pre-scheduled breaks are hard to operate or they are working alone.  It is important to re-evaluate regularly to check whether problems are arising, and take steps to ensure that breaks are being taken.  Employers should also be proactive, as arguing that a worker never asked for a break is not a valid defence.

If you have a situation where it is difficult to give workers an uninterrupted break, away from their work station, then it is worth reviewing the position with some specialist guidance to avoid a potential tribunal claim which could prove expensive.

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