A Small Business Guide to Working Time Regulations
The law is more complex than you think. Get the run-down on working time regulations here
Designed to protect the health and well-being of employees, working time regulations almost certainly apply to you if you run a business with staff. It’s important you stay within the law here, as a failure to comply could leave you with an unlimited fine and even jail time.
Luckily, working time regulations are fairly simple – as long as you get to grips with the formula involved. This article should provide all the basic information you need to know as a small business – from explaining the current maximum working week and how this applies to night work, to how much break time you need to give your staff; in addition to this we also look at how to deal with holidays and leave, and your paperwork obligations.
As long as you understand all the info in this article, there’s no reason why you should fall foul of the law.
What is the maximum working week?
The central tenet of working time regulations in the UK is that every worker cannot be required to work more than 48 hours a week.
Whether an employer is within the limits is calculated by averaging the hours worked over a 17-week period (known as the ‘reference period’), granting you a measure of flexibility on a week-by-week basis. This reference period is normally measured on a rolling basis, but if your staff agree you can change this to successive 17-week periods. If you have employed someone for less than 17 weeks in total, this period is calculated from the date they started their employment.
For someMedia employers, this 17-week period may be too short – if you are a tourism business which relies heavily on seasonal demand, for example, you may find you need staff to work long hours over the summer but much less in the winter months. In these situations, you can agree with your employee to extend the reference period to up to a year, or 52 weeks to be exact. Bear in mind that it is always essential to get the employee’s consent when looking to vary their working time reference period.
The reference period calculation should also take periods of leave and sickness into account. So, for example, if you have an employee who has been off sick for 12 weeks, you can’t require them to work more than 48 hours per week over the remaining period.
In certain situations – doctors in training being a notable example – the reference period is extended to 26 weeks by default. You can read the full list of exceptions in the government’s guidance to working time regulations. – generally, though, the exceptions are very unlikely to apply to most small firms.
How do the regulations apply to night work?
If you employ night workers, the situation is somewhat different; because of the unusual hours it requires, there are additional safeguards designed to protect employees’ health.
A ‘night worker’ is defined as someone who regularly works at least three hours during ‘night time’. You can’t require night workers to work more than eight hours in each 24-hour period, and there is no opt out facility.
So what is night time? Legally, ‘night time’ is defined as a period of at least seven hours, which includes the hours of midnight to 5am. In general, unless you and your employees agree otherwise, night hours run from 11pm to 6am.
Night time working limits are again defined by looking at total hours worked over a 17-week reference period. However, if your night workers deal with ‘special hazards’, or are put under particular strain, the law imposes a concrete limit of eight hours’ work per 24-hour period, with no averaging out at all.
Special regulations also apply in the transport industry. Night workers are limited to 10 hours’ work maximum in any single 24-hour period on safety grounds. This means, for example, if you employ lorry drivers, you can’t make them work more than 10 hours in a day if their shift will take in any hours from midnight to 5am.
All night workers have the right to a health assessment before being required to carry out night work. Generally, you should not require 16-18 year olds to work nights, but if you do they are entitled to a special health and capacities assessment, which assesses both their physical and mental capacity to do the work. All assessments need to be repeated on a regular basis.