When Mini Breaks Just Don’t Cut The Mustard!

Employment Appeal Tribunal says twenty-minute rest periods for workers should be given in one run, not as a series of mini-breaks as doing this will infringe the rights of workers to a suitable rest period.

The warning comes after Network Rail was found to have failed to take the necessary steps to facilitate full 20-minute rest breaks, despite an 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 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 20-minute rest break away from their usual working location 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 20-minute gap 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, but they must be allowed an equivalent period of compensatory rest. This applies to railway workers and others such as paramedics, or lone workers such as those in a security role.

Although Network Rail provided a relief signaller in some regions, they did not do so in Mr. Crawford’s region and instead 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. But Mr. Crawford appealed, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ruled against Network Rail. The EAT said that if it were possible to provide workers with a full uninterrupted 20-minute break, then that should be what happens. As Network Rail was 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 there for the protection of health and safety and this ruling demonstrates that tribunals will not allow employers to escape 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 involved in environments in which pre-scheduled breaks are hard to operate, or when they are working alone. It is important to re-evaluate regularly and see if problems are arising and take steps to ensure that breaks are being taken. It is important that employers do allow workers to take their periods of rest as compensation can be awarded against employers who refuse to allow workers to exercise these rights.

Website content note: This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.

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