Under the Working Time Regulations, workers are entitled to a 20 minute uninterrupted rest break if they work for more than 6 hours. In certain special cases, where a 20 minute rest break is not possible, workers are instead entitled to compensatory rest. The Court of Appeal confirmed in its decision in Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd v Crawford  that a compensatory rest break need not be a continuous, uninterrupted period of 20 minutes. Instead, for special case workers, a series of shorter rest breaks throughout a shift may be sufficient, provided that the breaks in aggregate amount to an “equivalent period” of compensatory rest.
Mr Crawford worked for Network Rail as a railway signaller working eight-hour shifts, mostly in single-manned signal boxes. During his shifts, Mr Crawford performed certain tasks when a train came through, up to six times an hour, with each task lasting one or two minutes. Mr Crawford also had to be available for immediate action if notified of a problem.
In most cases, workers are entitled to a rest break of at least 20 minutes when their working day is longer than six hours. However, the nature of his role meant that Mr Crawford was unable to take a single continuous rest break of this duration. Although he was permitted to take numerous naturally occurring breaks between periods of operational demand, which in aggregate amounted to well in excess of 20 minutes per working day, Mr Crawford claimed that Network Rail had not provided him with the rest break to which he was entitled.
An employment tribunal initially rejected Mr Crawford’s claim on the grounds that, because he worked in railway transport and “his activities are linked to transport timetables and to ensuring the continuity and regularity of traffic”, he was a special case worker and he fell within an exemption to the 20-minute rule. Instead, Mr Crawford was entitled to an equivalent period of compensatory rest, which the employment tribunal found Network Rail had permitted. The Employment Appeal Tribunal overturned the tribunal’s decision, finding that compensatory rest could not be provided through discontinuous rest.
The Court of Appeal, however, restored the decision of the employment tribunal, finding that Network Rail had provided adequate compensatory rest, which need not be an uninterrupted 20-minute break.
This outcome will be welcome news for employers of special case workers in confirming that a number of shorter breaks may amount to an equivalent period of compensatory rest. In addition to rail transport workers, there are many other special case workers, including certain workers at airports, docks, hospitals and prisons and those engaged in press, TV, postal and civil protection services and those working in industries in which work cannot be interrupted on technical grounds or where there is a foreseeable surge of activity. The key test is whether the worker’s activities involve the need for continuity of service or production.
Nevertheless, although the decision was largely based on Network Rail’s obligation to provide an “equivalent” period of rest for special case workers, which need not be “identical” to the continuous period of 20 minutes required for non-exempt workers, employers should still carry out an evaluative comparison to ensure that compensatory rest afforded to special case workers does have an equivalent value in terms of contributing to their wellbeing.