Often known by the 48 hour week limit, working time regulations actually cover a myriad of working conditions under the health and safety umbrella.
Employees (with a few limited exceptions) must not be forced to work more than 48 hours per week averaged over a 17 week referencing period. There are special provisions for young workers, night workers and children. The calculation is rather more complex than at face value, for example, certain breaks are not counted, hours off work sick or on holiday are replaced by days worked in the following referencing period (i.e. the first available days worked in the next 17-week period) etc and there are some circumstances following recent case law where travel to and from work may count as working time. Additionally, employees can choose (note ‘choose’, not be forced!) to wave their entitlements to some of the provisions of the Working Time regs including the 48 hour week, providing they voluntarily sign a working time waiver form which the employer must keep on file for inspection if required.
The regulations also cover daily and weekly rest breaks, stipulating a minimum 20 minute continuous break (away from the work station and where the worker is not available for work and does no work for the period) for every period of 6 hours worked, or 30 minutes in 4.5 hours if the worker is aged 16 – 18, or 1 hour in every 4 hours if the worker is aged 13 – 15. Adult workers should have a minimum of 11 consecutive hours break every 24 hours (12 for young workers) and 24 consecutive hours rest per 7 day period, or 48 hours per 14 days. Young workers are entitled to 2 consecutive days in each 7 day period. Many of these rights can be postponed in the event of unexpected circumstances arising where alternative cover is not possible. However compensatory rest must be provided and a harsh view is likely to be taken of employers routinely citing ‘unexpected’ circumstances, or where young people are involved.
‘Night workers’ who work a period of 3 hours or more during the night (11pm – 6am) on the majority of days in which they work should not work an average of more than 8 hours per 24 hour period averaged out over 17 weeks or the employees actual service if this shorter. Night workers are entitled to a health check before starting night work and at regular periods thereafter. The definitions of night work, break times and rest times may be varied by collective agreement.
Typical employment law pitfalls
Allowing employees to take say four 5min smoke breaks instead of a 20 minute break is not technically legal, but as with many things if your worker prefers this then the chances of this turning into a litigation issue is pretty slim. Serious issues more commonly arise in the form of stress or national minimum wage claims arise in respect of employees with unmeasured hours. For this reason working hours records should be kept for all employees. Where an employee is known to be working long hours, employers should look at the reasons behind this and take appropriate measures, which may include requiring the employee to sign a waiver form.
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