The Health and Safety Executive, which will police the law in factories, and local authorities - which will do the same for offices - have both indicated that they would enforce the regulations with a "light touch".
But after yesterday's ruling against RJB Mining at the High Court in London, many staff will be able to get injunctions to prevent employers making them work more than 48 hours, averaged over 17 weeks.
The case was brought by five members of the pit supervisors' union Nacods, who were granted a declaration allowing them to refuse to work until their hours averaged out at 48.
The ruling means that unions have more power to demand higher rates for working over the limit. RJB Mining claimed this was the union's motive in bringing the action. The company was granted leave to take the case to the Court of Appeal.
Martin Harvey, for the pitmen, said the judgment made it clear that employees had the right not to work more than 48 hours a week unless they wanted to. In cases where businesses breached injunctions, staff would be able to go to an employment tribunal and claim compensation, he said.
Management at RJB Mining argued that the European Union's Working Time Directive, which was incorporated into British law last October, created no obligations or rights and was not to be read as part of a contract of employment. The company also claimed that the regulations could not be made the subject of civil proceedings in the ordinary courts.
The five colliery supervisors work in or around Yorkshire where 353 of their colleagues out of 400 have followed the advice of their union and refused to sign an opt-out from the regulations. They have continued working "under protest" despite their claim of excess hours.
Management representatives told the judge that as soon as it became clear employees were refusing to sign opt-outs, RJB took action to ensure that the 48-hour limit would be introduced at the earliest opportunity. It was therefore a very short-term problem which would disappear within weeks, but which RJB feared would become an acute problem if the supervisors won their case.
The judge rejected RJB's argument that the rules could only be enforced through criminal proceedings brought against an employer by the Health and Safety Executive. He said it was an issue of contractual obligation which could therefore be considered by the civil courts.
The Institute of Directors said in a statement that the ruling had confirmed its fears that the directive would "impair the ability of employers to run their companies in the most productive and flexible way".Reuse content