Under the Working Time Regulations 1998, adult workers are entitled to a rest break after six hours work. Employers can agree how long this rest break should last in a collective or workforce agreement. If they don't the default position is that the break should last at least 20 minutes, the worker must know in advance when they can take it and it should not be interrupted.
That works for many workers, but what about those whose roles make it difficult for them to determine, in advance, when they can take a break?
Some sectors are excluded from these requirements - including merchant shipping, fishing and the police and armed forces.
In addition, other workers are treated as "special cases". These include individuals whose services need to be performed continuously, such as care takers, security guards, doctors in training, prison guards, household refuse collectors, and those involved in key services such as gas, electricity, water and transportation etc. There are also exceptions for "normal" workers where something unusual happens which is beyond the employer's control which mean staff can't take their usual breaks.
In these cases, employers have to provide an "equivalent period" of compensatory rest. But does this have to be taken as one uninterrupted rest break or can it be made up of shorter breaks?
That issue was decided by the Court of Appeal in the case of Network Rail v Crawford in a decision handed down today.
Mr Crawford worked as a signal box worker. He worked in five signal boxes - four of these were single manned. He worked eight hour shifts apart from on Sundays when shifts were 12 hours. When he was working alone, he was not able to take a single 20 minute uninterrupted break due to the nature of his work and he complained this breached the WTRs.
His employers said that he could take compensatory rest in 5/10/15 minute chunks during quiet periods and that these provided more than 20 minutes of rest over the course of his shift and were more beneficial to his health and safety.
The Court of Appeal said there was no reason in principle why a break had to be for an uninterrupted break of 20 minutes and, in appropriate circumstances, it might be better to have shorter, more frequent breaks throughout a shift.
This means, that in "special cases" as explained above, employers can comply with the WTRs provided they allow workers to take frequent short breaks which in aggregate amount to 20 minutes or more.
However, employers whose staff are not treated as "special cases" must continue to allow them to take uninterrupted breaks.
Why this matters
This decision gives employers greater flexibility when preparing shift rotas - particularly for lone workers as they do not have to find someone to cover breaks which will reduce costs and the complexity of managing staff.
But, employers will need reliable evidence to show that workers can take breaks and may need expert evidence to establish this - Network Rail conducted a "rest break assessment" which found that there were sufficient naturally occurring breaks to enable the signallers to take compensatory rest.