The Working Time Regulations (WTR), introduced in 1998 and amended in 2003, may have an impact on small and medium enterprises (SME), since it compels most employers to ensure their staff work reasonable hours and get time off, which could affect the running of a business.

The following article provides brief, general information on working time and other regulations. You should first seek proper Employment Law advice before making decisions relating to your business, since other legislation or recently introduced laws not covered in this article, may also affect employee rights.

In short, the main, general points of the WTR are employees cannot be made to work more than 48 hours per-week on average (and young workers more than 40, or eight hours per-day).

Some workers in certain sectors – such as sea and air transport – are not covered by the regulations, since they are covered by other directives for example, relating specifically to their industry, so you should check to see if these regulations affect you first.

‘Workers’ are described as those having an employment contract, or receive a regular wage from a company or organisation they work for. It also covers trainees on work experience.

Workers – and some agency staff are included here too – are entitled to work no more than 48-hours in a working week and receive 11 hours off in any 24-hour period, and 24 hours in a seven-day period.

The onus is on the employer to check what is working time, how long staff are working each week – and if an individual is working more than 48 hours, to then decide whether or not to cut their hours or see if they might wish to opt-out from the limit.

Working time is usually established by determining the average time in a 17-week period, although it should be noted ‘working time’ does not include traveling to and from work or lunch breaks, but does include traveling as part of the job.

If a worker does agree to opt-out, they must first sign an agreement and decide with their employer how much notice they will provide if they decide to opt-in again. Employers and businesses cannot opt-out unless there is a general agreement, between employers and staff, although some caveats remain. If a member of staff does decide to opt-out and no notice period has been set, the minimum time to cancel the opt-out is seven days. Young workers are not allowed to opt-out.

The regulations also outline the need for businesses to keep proper records of the time worked by staff, to demonstrate adherence and to ensure staff too are complying with the regulations. They must also keep a record of those who have opted-out.

Rules also apply for night workers, and you should check what is defined as a night worker and what regulations govern their working patterns. The rules include the need for a health assessment for night workers.

There are certain, special situations where the regulations do not apply – or are different – and these include for night workers involved in security (‘night time’ is usually defined as between 11pm and 6am), plus busy periods in retail for example, or there is an emergency. Again, you should seek advice as to where the regulations are not applicable if you think they may affect you or your business.

If a member of staff feels their employer is not complying with the WTR, they can make a claim to the Health & Safety Executive and such claims could be brought before a tribunal.

Clearly, there is a need for all small businesses to look into the regular working times of their staff, particularly where they may work odd patterns or are required to travel extensively as part of their job, meet with clients, customers and suppliers regularly for lunches and evening dinners for example.

It should be noted however, that the regulations do not cover employees attending evening classes or day-release courses, to name two examples.

Those running a business where shift work is involved or they own and operate a shop, should also familiarise themselves with the rules referring to shift working and working on Sundays for example.

As mentioned earlier, other laws, directives and regulations etc, with relevance to employment, should also be referred to and small business owners and employers should first obtain professional employment law advice if any of the issues detailed in this article (or others) are pertinent.