Coronavirus: Employer’s resource centre — live guidance available here

Give us a rest (break) already

Employment Law & HR

Breaks are a perennial battle ground between employers and employees and recently, a question was asked as to whether a rest break has to be for a continuous period of 20 minutes?

No, was the answer from the Court of Appeal in the case of Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd v Crawford [2019] EWCA Civ. 2689. Mr Crawford was a railway signal worker and worked eight hours shifts (12 hours on a Sunday) at five different signal boxes, which were almost entirely manned by one individual. Even if there were only a few trains an hour, Mr Crawford still had to continuously monitor the boxes from his post as he could be needed at any time, not just when trains were scheduled to pass through.

This meant that Mr Crawford could not take a continuous 20 minute rest break during his shift when he was working alone, which he argued breached the Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR). Network Rail argued that he could take periods of compensatory rest to make this up throughout his shift which totalled more than 20 minutes, albeit not continuous. 

The Court of Appeal held that there was no reason why his break needed to be for a continuous 20 minutes in this case. They noted that this is a “special case” as defined in the legislation and therefore an employer could still comply with the WTR if they allow their workers to have breaks throughout their shift which amount to a total of 20 minutes or more.

Under the WTR adult workers are entitled to a rest break of 20 minutes after 6 hours of work. This should generally be uninterrupted and workers must know in advance of when they are able to take it. However, some roles make it difficult for a worker to have an uninterrupted break and this is where the “special cases” are excluded from these requirements as long as equivalent rest (compensatory rest) is given.

These “special cases” include roles where a role needs to be continuously performed, such as certain transport services and services relating to the reception, treatment or care provided by hospitals or similar establishments (including doctors in training), residential institutions and prisons.

This decision is a welcome clarification for employers and appears to follow the logic of the regulations. It provides useful guidance for some employers who have lone workers and struggle to find cover for break times. However, there still will need to be strong evidence that a worker in this situation is able to take at least 20 minutes of compensatory rest.  

If you have any questions regarding rest breaks, rest periods, daily rest, weekly rest, night time working, lone working, compensatory rest or any other WTR-related matters you can contact your Employment Solicitor for bespoke advice.

© Copyright of Law At Work 2021 Law At Work is part of Marlowe plc’s employee relations division