A rail signal box worker who claimed that his inability to take a 20 minute uninterrupted break at work breached the Working Time Regulations, has lost his legal battle in the Court of Appeal.

The decision according to law firm Irwin Mitchell is good news for many employers as it will save money and give them greater flexibility when preparing shift rotas.

Under the Working Time Regulations 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 and the worker must know in advance when they can take it and it should not be interrupted.

Merchant shipping, fishing and the police and armed forces are exempt and other workers such as security guards, prison guards, household refuse collectors, and those involved in key services such as gas, electricity, water and transportation are treated as "special cases". For these individuals whose services need to be performed continuously, employers have to provide an "equivalent period" of compensatory rest.

This case centres on whether it is unlawful if the "equivalent period" of compensatory rest cannot be taken as one uninterrupted 20 minute rest break.

In the case of Network Rail v Crawford, Mr Crawford worked as a signal box worker who when working alone was unable to take a single 20 minute uninterrupted break due to the nature of his work.

He complained this breached the WTRs but his employers said that he could take compensatory rest in 5/10/15 minute chunks during quiet periods. They said these provided more than 20 minutes of rest over the course of his shift and were more beneficial to his health and safety.

The Court of Appeal today agreed with Network Rail and said there was no reason in principle why a break had to be for an uninterrupted break of 20 minutes.

This means, that in "special cases", employers can comply with the WTRs provided they allow workers to take frequent short breaks which in aggregate amount to 20 minutes or more.  However, employers whose staff are not treated as "special cases" must continue to allow them to take uninterrupted breaks.

Glenn Hayes, employment partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: "This decision gives 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. 

"Employers will need reliable evidence to show that workers can take breaks and may need expert evidence to establish this. Network Rail, for example, conducted a "rest break assessment" which found that there were sufficient naturally occurring breaks to enable the signallers to take compensatory rest."