Working at night

There is extra legal protection for people classed as night workers. However, there are exceptions that you should be aware of. You can also find out here what to do if you are unhappy with your rights.

The definition of 'night time'

‘Night’ is generally the period between 11.00 pm and 6.00 am. You can agree with your employer to change the night time period. If you do, then it must be at least seven hours long and include the time between midnight to 5.00 am.

If you're a night worker

You are a night worker if you regularly work for at least three hours during the night time period either:

  • on most of the days you work
  • on a proportion of the days you work, which is written in a collective or workforce agreement between your employer and the trade union
  • often enough to say that you work such hours on a regular basis (for example, a third of your working time could be at night, so you would be a night worker)
  • Introduction to trade unions

Restrictions on night work

As a night worker, you should not work more than an average of eight hours in each 24-hour period. This average is usually calculated over a 17-week period. This includes regular overtime, but not occasional overtime. You cannot opt out of this night working limit.

If your night work involves special hazards or heavy physical or mental strain, you can't be made to work more than eight hours in any 24-hour period.

This is an absolute limit rather than an average limit and includes daytime overtime. With absolute limits you cannot work over eight hours in any 24-hour period. Average limits allow you to average the hours you work over a set period. For example, one night you work nine hours, the next night you work seven, averaging out at eight hours.

Your employer should identify any hazards in your work, assess how harmful they could be and take steps to reduce any risks.

Exceptions to night time working limits

You do not have limits on your night working hours if you work in the following areas:

  • jobs where you can choose freely how long you will work, for example, a managing executive
  • the armed forces, emergency services and police are excluded in some circumstances
  • domestic servants in private houses

Limits on night work do not apply if:

  • you have to travel a long distance from your home to get to work or you constantly work in different places
  • you are doing security or surveillance-based work
  • you are working in an industry with busy peak periods, like agriculture, tourism or postal services
  • there is an emergency or there might be an accident
  • the job needs round-the-clock staffing (for example, hospital work)
  • you are employed in the rail industry and you work on board trains
  • you are employed in the rail industry and your activities are irregular or linked to seeing that trains run on time

If you are a night worker in any of these situations, the reference period to calculate your weekly working time limit is extended from 17 to 26 weeks. You also have the right to take compensatory rest breaks to make up for your extra time at work.

Limits on night work do not apply if you are a mobile worker (work in road or air transport), although you are entitled to ‘adequate rest’ meaning you should have a rest from work that is long enough to make sure you do not injure yourself or anyone around you.

Young workers

If you are under 18 but over school leaving age, you are classed as a young worker. You are under school leaving age until the end of summer term of the school year in which you turn 16. Young workers have different restrictions on night work than adult workers.

Extra pay for working at night

Your employer might decide to reward you for working antisocial hours (for example, you may get free transport, food or extra pay). You only have a legal right to any of these if your contract says you do, but it's good practice for employers to offer them.

Changes to your contract

If you don't have to do night work under your contract, your employer will normally need your agreement to make you change your hours. A contract can be in writing or a verbal agreement.

Your health rights as a night worker

As there are health risks linked with night work, your employer must offer you a free health assessment (normally a questionnaire) before you start working at night and on a regular basis after that. Generally this is done once a year, but your employers could offer a health assessment more often. You do not have to take the health check offered.

Your employer should get help from a suitably qualified health professional when devising and assessing the health assessments. If you do complete a health assessment questionnaire and the answers cause concern, your employer should refer you to a doctor. If a doctor tells you that you have health problems caused by night work, your employer must transfer you to daytime work - if this is possible.

Mobile and road transport workers

Although excluded from other working time protections, mobile and road transport workers who are night workers are entitled to health assessments.

Pregnancy and new mothers

If you become pregnant or are a new mother, and are worried about the risks of night time work, you should speak to your employer about being moved to daytime work. Your employer should give you special consideration and conduct a risk assessment.

What to do next

If you feel you're exceeding the night work limits:

  • your employer may be in breach of contract
  • the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland could take action against your employer

If you think you're not receiving any other rights as a night worker you can:

Where you can get help

The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues.

Advice NI offers free and impartial advice.

You can get more information on Health and Safety issues  by calling the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI).

If you're a member of a trade union, you can get help, advice and support from them.

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