Case law: Employers do not need to provide 'special case' workers with a continuous 20-minute break every six hours, says the Court of Appeal
Employers can legally provide 'special case' workers - whose jobs may prevent them taking a continuous 20-minute break for every six hours worked as required under working time laws - with frequent, shorter breaks, the Court of Appeal has confirmed.
This update was published in Legal Alert - April 2019
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Working time rules give workers the right to a continuous 20-minute break for every six hours they work. However, if they are 'special case' workers whose work patterns mean they are unable to take a continuous 20-minute break for every six hours worked, they must be given 'equivalent' periods of rest to compensate. Examples of special case workers include prison and security guards, caretakers and rubbish collectors.
A relief railway signalman who operated signal boxes on his own was a special case worker. His employer allowed him to take multiple five, ten or fifteen minute breaks during his working day when he could fit them in, for example, during quiet periods.
He argued that the requirement to provide 'equivalent' rest meant he should still be entitled to take a continuous 20-minute rest break and, if necessary, his employer should provide cover to enable him to do so. His employer was therefore breaching the working time rules.
His employer argued that his shorter breaks should be aggregated and, if they totalled 20 minutes or more, this amounted to an equivalent period of rest and the working time rules were not breached. It also argued that this arrangement was better for employees from a health and safety point of view.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) said that a rest period comprised a proper uninterrupted break from work and, so far as possible, that break should last at least 20 minutes or it would not be an 'equivalent' period of compensatory rest. As the employer had not provided such a break it had breached the working time rules. It rejected the claim that multiple breaks were safer from a health and safety point of view.
The Court of Appeal has now overturned the EAT decision. It ruled that there was no reason why individual compensatory rest breaks for special cases had to be for a continuous 20-minute period. They could be for shorter periods. It also agreed with the employer that it might sometimes be better for employees to have shorter but more frequent breaks.
This means breaks for special case workers can now be for shorter periods - provided the aggregate shorter breaks amount to 20 minutes or more. This could enable employers who currently have two workers on duty so each can take a continuous 20-minute break, to have just one worker on duty taking multiple shorter breaks.
- Employers should consider whether they wish to provide special case workers -particularly those sharing work with another worker so each can take a continuous 20-minute break - with frequent, shorter breaks instead so they only need to take on one worker to do the job.
Case ref: Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd v Crawford  EWCA Civ 269
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