Railway Signalman Triumphs in Rest Breaks Dispute

Since the advent of the Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR), those who work shifts of six hours or more have been legally entitled to take a continuous 20-minute rest break. There are, however, a number of exceptions to the rule and one of them – relating to railway workers – came under analysis in a guideline case.

The case concerned a railway signalman who worked eight-hour shifts at various signal boxes. Train traffic was sporadic and, although he worked alone, he was able to take short breaks that together amounted to well over 20 minutes during each shift. He was not, however, guaranteed continuous 20-minute breaks and his employer required him to remain on call at all times and to take breaks as they naturally occurred in the course of his working day.

It was accepted that Regulation 12 of the WTR – which enshrines the right to uninterrupted rest breaks of not less than 20 minutes – did not apply to him. That was because Regulation 21(f) excludes railway workers whose activities are linked to transport timetables and to ensuring the continuity and regularity of train traffic. By Regulation 24, however, his employer was required, wherever possible, to allow him to take equivalent periods of compensatory rest. In rejecting his complaint, an Employment Tribunal found that the employer had met that obligation.

In upholding his challenge to that ruling, the Employment Appeal Tribunal noted that, so far as possible, compensatory rest must comprise a break from work of at least 20 minutes. It would be possible to afford the man such continuous breaks by laying on appropriate personnel to relieve him and, in those circumstances, the employer had breached its obligations under Regulation 24. The case was remitted to the ET to consider the question of remedies.

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