Legal Advice · 1 April 2021

What is the legal number of hours employees can have between shifts?

What is the legal number of hours employees can have between shifts?

With millions of UK citizens working shifts in hospitality, security, manufacturing, retail and more, shift work, including work outside of standard 9 to 5 times, is a cornerstone of the economy. Bottom lines, unfortunately, overrule humanised shift patterns; hence fatigue, accidents, injuries and ill-health often develop.

Worker fatigue develops physical, mental and emotional symptoms and impaired cognitive function. There is a direct correlation to errors, accidents, ill health, injury and dismal productivity. Due to this phenomenon and the increased appreciation of human rights and work-life balance, substantial quantities of legislation have been developed to protect employees and, through that, their families and the public in general.

How many hours between shifts is legal in UK?

Fatigue is mostly caused by the demands on workers by employers, whether this be unwitting or not. Employers are legally bound to manage any risks arising from work—the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 requires employers to protect employees and the public they come into contact with.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to have various risk controls in place, like the number of hours worked and the appropriate scheduling of hours.

The Working Time Regulations (WTR) 1998 limits workers’ hours but does not specifically define ‘shift work’ but does refer to it as:

  • A pattern of work where one employee replaces another on the same job within 24-hours.
  • The employer, legally, must ensure the avoidance of fatigue, including not allowing workers to voluntarily overwork. Compliance with the WTR alone, however, won’t avoid fatigue risks.
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance, HSG256, proposes that working hours are not too long, that employees get “enough” rest between shifts, that employees do not work too many consecutive night shifts, especially after successive shifts and that employees avoid critical jobs at the end of shifts.

HSG256 also proposes that shifts rotate from mornings to afternoons and from afternoons to night shifts. This type of shift rotation is called forward rotation. The breaks that employees take must also be of a suitable quality rest-break in their work so as to support mental, emotional and physical rejuvenation. Employees may report fatigue to managers/supervisors. If they report fatigue problems to management, they must be respected, and immediate action must be taken without punitive measures.

As fatigue is not only caused by the physical act of working but by other factors. The employer must ensure that the work environment does not cause drowsiness, and all these measures must be effectively implemented via a robust administration system:

  • Workers over 18 years of age are entitled to rest breaks at work, daily rest and weekly rest.
  • Rest breaks at work – 1 uninterrupted 20-minute rest break during six hours+ workdays, e.g. tea or lunch. Payment during this break is subject to the employment contract.
  • Daily rest – 11 hours rest between working days. Work finishing at 8 pm means the next legal start is 7 am the next day, not sooner.
  • Weekly rest – 1 uninterrupted, non-working 24-hour break each week or one uninterrupted, non-working 48 hours break each fortnight.
  • The employment contract may allow for more or different rights to breaks from work within the above parameters.
  • Monotonous work (production line) employees should be given enough breaks to protect their health and safety fully.
  • Domestic workers or au pairs in a private house do not qualify for breaks.

What are the minimum hours between working shifts?

In addition to shift breaks, it is important to get rest breaks correctly acknowledged. A rest break can be specified by employers if:

  • the break is taken in one go and is restricted to near the middle of the day.
  • the break is spent from workstations
  • the full break is null and void if an employer calls an employee back to work before the break is finished.
An employee is not legally entitled to smoke breaks, paid rest breaks or exceptions and special circumstances unless their contract states this.

There are compensatory rest breaks for shift workers such as young people, lorry and coach drivers, and other industries where the work can cause missed breaks. Compensatory rest breaks are the same length of time as the break that has been missed if:

  • the shift worker can’t take daily, or weekly rest breaks between the end of one shift and the beginning of another
  • their home is a long way from the work site such as an oil rig worker or multiple work sites such as a marine maintenance diver
  • the work involves security and surveillance-based work
  • the work has strong seasonal workload changes, e.g. agriculture, retail, postal or tourism
  • there’s an exceptional event or accident, and the work relates to this
  • round-the-clock staffing is vital, e.g. hospital work
  • the work is aboard trains or is linked to trains running on time
  • the work is split, e.g. partly in the morning and part in the evening as a building caretaker
  • there is a ‘collective’ or ‘workforce’ agreement that changes the rest breaks’ parameters.
The total rest entitlement for a week is 90 hours a week on average – this doesn’t include breaks at work, which are additional.

In summary, the regulations cover the requirements for adult workers, 18 years of age and over.  Employers must manage rest breaks at work, daily rest and weekly rest.

The minimum rest period in a 24-hour period should not be less than 11 consecutive hours. Workers are entitled to at a minimum of 11 hours rest per day with one day off/week and a rest break during the shift if it is longer than six hours.

The minimum rest break is 20 minutes uninterrupted. The type of work delivered over a 24 hour period does not allow for an 11 hours break, and the employee will be awarded a compensatory rest period instead. The compensatory rest period should be taken as soon as possible after the missed break. The regulations imply that an employer has met their obligations if the worker receives compensatory rest periods of, on average, at least 90 hours rest per week.

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