Long hours to put more Yorkshire companies in the dock, warns legal expert

Employment lawyers

21.07.2006

More of Yorkshire & the Humbers 170,000 businesses will face prosecution for allowing employees to work long hours in the future, a leading expert has warned.

Sabeeha Khan, senior solicitor with national law firm Irwin Mitchell, based at its offices in Queen Street, Leeds, made her prediction after a groundbreaking case dramatically widened the circumstances in which businesses whose staff work excessive hours can be punished.

Ms Khan said the regions almost 9,500 transport and communications firms and 800 agricultural and fishing businesses could be particularly vulnerable, as statistics showed these were the industries where long hours were most common.

In the landmark case, Cambridgeshire potato company The Produce Connection was fined £30,000 and ordered to pay £24,000 costs for breaching health and safety legislation, as a result of one of its workers dying in a car crash. This is the first such verdict where the worker died outside business hours and away from company premises.

The Health & Safety Executive took the Chittering company to court following the death of tractor driver Mark Fiebig, 21, in a car crash, after he worked 76 hours in four days, a total that left him with chronic fatigue.

Employment expert

Ms Khan said: The verdict in this case, given its unique circumstances, means the issue of working hours now needs to move sharply up the priority list of Yorkshires employers.

Setting out the legal background to the subject, Ms Khan said regulations stated most workers could not be forced to put in more than 48 hours a week, averaged over a year.

But these rules did not apply if people were self-employed, ran their own business or were free to work for different clients. Other workers who could generally decide how many hours they put in because of the nature of their jobs, such as senior managers, were also exempt.

And she added: A voluntary opt-out clause allows employees in groups not automatically excluded to sign agreements with their companies to work longer than 48 hours, with no upper limit applying.

It is estimated more than 475,000 of Yorkshires almost 2.5m workers regularly put in more than 48 hours a week.

National research shows almost half the workers in agriculture and fisheries and more than a quarter in transport and communications surpass this level. Official figures suggest about 15,000 people work in the former sector in Yorkshire and 154,000 in the latter.

Ms Khan warned: Long hours, especially when coupled with other occupational hazards, such as poor light, heat and noise, can lead to stress and depression, disrupted biological rhythms and disturbed sleeping and eating patterns. These increase the risk of injury and, as The Produce Connection case showed, even death.

I would now urge Yorkshire businesses to keep written records of hours worked by employees and continually monitor these. They should also carry out risk assessments for potentially hazardous tasks, taking into account any adverse reactions undertaking them over a long period might cause.

Ms Khan said it was all the more important for Yorkshires managers to spot the first signs of stress and other work-related illnesses or injuries, and encourage employees to voice concerns about conditions and hours, acting on any reasonable reservations raised.

Warning businesses about the consequences of laxity, she said: If there's a serious accident, the Health & Safety Executive will almost always investigate the circumstances surrounding it.

The organisations inspectors have wide-ranging powers to seize and remove documents at a company's premises. If there's any sign due regard wasn't paid to hours worked or managers turned a blind eye to workers needs, punishment is likely to be swift and severe.

Even in cases where employees ask to work extra hours for personal or financial reasons, managers need to be aware of their limits. Its more important than ever now that businesses ensure health and safety are not compromised by an undue emphasis on productivity and profitability.

Failure to implement such a policy could prove highly expensive, with unlimited fines in the crown court, and may cause severe damage to a company's reputation, given that being found out is almost certain to generate bad publicity.