'Rest break' ruling
The law on breaks, on face value, seems straightforward:
A worker, who works more than 6 hours, is entitled to a rest break of an "uninterrupted period of not less than 20 minutes, and the worker is entitled to spend it away from his workstation if he has one."
The Working Time Regulations offers protection for workers and rules for employers, stipulating the minimum requirements for breaks in work. The Court of Appeal has recently ruled on a case, which has subsequently given us further information on how this can be interpreted.
The finding – in a snap shot
In summary, the Court of Appeal confirmed that a period of rest need not be a 20 minute uninterrupted rest break, but can instead be made up by a number of shorter breaks during a shift that when combined, totals a minimum of 20 minutes. The Court of Appeal placed emphasis on the fact that this will be acceptable, as long as the breaks sufficiently contribute to the worker's wellbeing and it is of the same value as an uninterrupted break.
What does this mean for businesses?
This is good news for employers of workers who will continue to implement an intermittent break policy throughout a worker's shift, rather than having to arrange for one uninterrupted break – avoiding the need to arrange costly cover.
Another important point for employers to take from this decision is that as long as the equivalent rest breaks provided to the worker hold an equivalent value to a statutory rest break in relation to its contribution to the wellbeing of the worker, then the length of each rest will not matter. The wellbeing of the worker should be the primary concern, and although the decision is ambiguous in its interpretation of the concept of wellbeing, it is important that any employer recognises this fact and should aim to carry out an assessment of their equivalent rest break arrangements. In doing so, they should analyse factors such as the length of each rest break on an average shift, the work that is being carried out, the industry they are in and the employees shift pattern.
The legal details
It is not surprising that there is some confusion around this issue – the regulations allow for exemptions and under certain special circumstances, where it is deemed that a rest break of 20 minutes may not be reasonable or practical, then they must be provided with an equivalent period of compensatory rest. If this is not possible, the employer should afford such protection as may be appropriate in order to safeguard the worker's health and safety.
In the case that came before the Court of Appeal, Mr Crawford, a relief signaller employed by Network Rail, came under the rest break exception due to the intermittent nature of his job. When a train came past the signal box where he worked alone, he would perform a number of tasks but would then be idle, but importantly on standby, until the next train passed. Between trains, Mr Crawford was able to have multiple rest breaks of 5 minutes each that would often aggregate to more than 20 minutes over the course of a shift.
Mr Crawford's job role was linked to ensuring the continuity and safety of rail traffic. He was entitled to compensatory rest under the Working Time Regulations and he claimed to the Employment Tribunal that Network Rail were breaching the regulations by not allowing him to take an uninterrupted 20-minute break during every shift. Furthermore, he argued that another relief signaller should be made available so that he could take the break.
The Tribunal, who viewed that the arrangements between Mr Crawford and Network Rail satisfactorily constituted an equivalent period of compensatory rest and sufficiently safeguarded his health and safety, rejected his claim. It was also noted that evidence provided by Network Rail indicated that a number of shorter breaks were more beneficial than a longer single break.
Mr Crawford subsequently appealed the matter to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, where it was decided that Network Rail's arrangement was in breach of the regulations and was not beneficial to the worker from a health and safety standpoint. This ruling by the Employment Appeal Tribunal had a potentially negative impact on employers of workers, any arrangements that they had with these workers were now likely to be void, and alternative arrangements would need to be put in place in a large number of situations.
The potential issue for many employers has now been eliminated by the Court of Appeal which agreed with the original Employment Tribunal's finding that compensatory rest does not always need to comprise of an uninterrupted 20-minute break, regardless of whether the employer has the capacity to arrange such a break. Underhill LJ argued that compensatory rest outlined in the regulations does not need to be identical to the minimum rest break of uninterrupted 20 minutes. He went on to justify smaller breaks satisfactorily constituting a compulsory rest break by stating that there was no quantifiable or reasonable evidence to suggest that one longer break is better for the worker than a number of shorter breaks.
What to take away from the ruling
Ultimately, the ruling will come as positive news to employers who will not have to worry about making alternative arrangements for their workers in relation to equivalent period breaks. Employers will hold greater flexibility when arranging shifts and will not be required to bring in support for lone workers. In turn, this should lead to a reduction in costs and complex management issues.