The UK has a large number of employees working long hours, which puts their health and safety at risk. This is because our regulations allow all workers to opt-out of the 48 hour limit in the working time directive, and very often this is not a free choice.
The official Labour Force Survey reports that 3.25 million employees (12.7% of the workforce) work more than 48 hours per week. Furthermore, 450,000 (1.8%) work extremely long hours - more than 60 per week. The survey also reports that 75 per cent of those who work long hours are male, some 2 million long hours workers are managers and professionals, and just over a million are manual workers receiving paid overtime.
Yet there can be no doubt that working more than 48 hours per week on a regular basis poses significant risks. John Major's Conservative Government lost a European Court of Justice (ECJ) case that tried to prove that the Working Time Directive was not a health and safety measure. During the hearing, the UK Government's expert witness advised them to drop their case because it was so weak. All the subsequent research on the dangers of working long hours has strongly reinforced the ECJ's conclusion.
The risks to health include the following. First of all, excessive working time is linked to stress and depression. ''Regularly working in excess of 48 hours per week appears to constitute a significant occupational stressor which reduces job satisfaction, increases the effects of other stressors and significantly increases the risk of mental health problems. Second, in terms of physical effects, the most important effect is the link between long hours and cardiovascular disorder (heart disease), there is also evidence for a link between long hours and maladaptive health behaviours such as smoking. Third, long hours are also linked to a range of other physical ailments, including diabetes mellitus, diarrhoea, and musculoskeletal problems. Fourth, the safe limits for jobs where exposure to dangerous chemicals, dust or vibration are hazards are normally calculated on the assumption that employees will work 40 hours per week. Long hours lead to the safe limits for exposure being breached.
In jobs where concentration is vital, long hours can be a direct cause of accidents. Three workers were killed in London when a crane that they had been assembling collapsed. The court attributed the accident to their working over 100 hours per week! A lorry driver in Derbyshire who had been working for more than 70 hours fell asleep and crashed into a group of cyclists, killing an off-duty policeman.
The opt-out cannot be allowed to remain, since it allows workers to ignore this important piece of health and safety legislation. There are also some serious questions about the extent to which the opt-out is genuinely a free choice at the moment. Even the UK Governments' own studies have identified substantial pressure from employers, including the following disturbing facts.
· 44% of those who have signed an opt-out say that it was a condition of their employment
· 23% of long hours workers have not signed an opt-out but have been put under pressure by their employers to work more than 48 hours
· 50% of the long hours workers who have either raised issues about the 48 hour limit or know that such issues have been raised by somebody else in their workplace say that the issue was not resolved. In other words, they have been unable to access their rights.
However, simply applying tighter conditions to the use of the opt-out would not of itself be likely to guarantee a free choice, since the enforcement regime in the UK is weak, and many complaints go uninvestigated.
But even if we could guarantee that every opt-out was a genuinely free choice, this would not remove the underlying issues. The right to work long hours has to be mediated by a duty to work safely and the state has the right to ensure that its citizens do not harm themselves or cause harm to anybody else. The long hours van driver who falls asleep at the wheel veers across the road and another motorist or a pedestrian gives them no choice. The worker who becomes ill or injures themselves through long hours may require lifelong health care from the National Health Service.
Long hours are often associated with low productivity because tired workers slow down and make more mistakes. A phased withdrawal of the opt-out from, say 2012 to 2015/ 2016 would allow ample time to give more attention improving productivity. In fact, the most successful companies across the economy have already moved away from long hours. In 2005 the Government combined with the CBI and TUC to run a series of master classes so that companies that had moved away from long hours as part of a new focus on increasing productivity could share their knowledge with those who wanted to follow in the footsteps.
The conclusions of this project were very promising; "case studies show how it is possible to increase productivity whilst moving away from routinely working long hours. Many of the case studies demonstrate win-win situations, which involved better work organisation, technology and training". The TUC would work with the Government and employers' organisations to extend this project in order to proved road maps for change if the opt-out were to be phased out.
Paul Sellers, TUC Policy officer
To go further:
Working time: its impact on safety and health, Anne Spurgeon, International Labour Organisation, 2003, p7. http://www.ilo.org/public/english/protection/condtrav/pdf/wtwo-as-03.pdf
Working Long Hours, Health and Safety Laboratory, HSE, 2002, p37. http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/hsl_pdf/2003/hsl03-02.pdf
A Survey of Workers Experiences of the Working Time Regulations, DTI Employment Relation Series No 31, 2004, pps 8 and 25. http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file11485.pdf
Managing change: practical ways to reduce long hours and reform working practices', Department of Trade and Industry, 2005, p9. http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file14239.pdf