The Court of Appeal has unanimously ruled against a railway signal box worker who claimed his inability to take an uninterrupted break at work amounted to a breach of his rights.
Under Working Time Regulations (WTR) 1998, adult workers are entitled to a rest break after six hours’ work. The default position is that the break should last at least 20 minutes, should be uninterrupted and the worker must know in advance when they can take their break.
Merchant shipping, fishing, the armed forces and the police are exempt. Those involved in key services such as gas, electricity, water and transportation are treated as “special cases”, because individuals’ work often needs to be performed continuously, and employers need to provide an equivalent period of compensatory rest.
David Crawford worked as a signal box worker for a group of five Network Rail signal boxes in Surrey and Sussex. All but one of the boxes were manned by a single person, which meant that when working alone he was unable to take a single 20-minute uninterrupted break due to the nature of his work.
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Network Rail published guidance in 2013 setting out its view of the WTR in regards to the provision of rest breaks for signallers and crossing keepers. This stated signallers’ work was “intermittent” and relevant break entitlement fell under the concept of compensatory rest.
The guidance explained single-manned location breaks “must be taken between periods of operational demand, where there are opportunities for ‘naturally occurring breaks’”.
In 2014, Crawford raised a grievance in relation to the provision of compensatory rest breaks. Emma Lowe, an occupation psychologist, and Chris Hack, an ergonomist – both of whom worked for Network Rail Ergonomics – carried out a study in response to the grievance.
Their study resulted in a formal “rest break assessment” covering the single-manned boxes Crawford worked on. It concluded there were sufficient naturally occurring breaks at all of the boxes to enable signallers to take compensatory rest. The experts found there was no need to provide for a formal rostered rest break, which would require cover by another signaller, and the grievance was rejected.
Crawford brought his complaint to an employment tribunal in July 2016, claiming he was entitled to a rest break every shift but the requirements of his work were so continuous he was afforded no opportunity to take such a break or even any shorter break.
The tribunal ruled against Crawford as it found, in practice, he could take short breaks from his workstation which would amount to 20 minutes when added together over the course of a shift.
Crawford appealed the decision on the basis that “an equivalent period of compensatory rest” must comprise one period lasting at least 20 minutes. The employment appeal tribunal (EAT) ruled in November 2017 that a break should last at least 20 minutes – otherwise it would not be equivalent.
The EAT found that although Crawford might be able to take shorter breaks on some shifts, he was “always, in effect, on call” during daytime shifts in the week, meaning it would not be possible to have one continuous 20-minute break.
Network Rail appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeal. The court agreed with the business and said there was no reason in principle why a break had to be for an uninterrupted period of 20 minutes.
Glenn Hayes, employment partner at Irwin Mitchell, said the decision would give 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”.
Nikita Sonecha, associate at Royds Withy King, said implementing a simple mechanism for tracking rest breaks could make it easy for employers to defend against claims of inadequate break times.
A Network Rail spokesperson said it welcomed the Court of Appeal’s decision: “Railway signallers play a critical role in ensuring that trains operate safely across the rail network, and we will continue to ensure appropriate rest breaks are afforded to our staff.” Crawford could not be reached for comment.