A man who had worked at the same railway station for 44 years says he has been left “completely shattered” by being fired for trying to take a 20 minute break during an eight hour shift.
Peter Lee, 60, has worked as a railway signalman at Arundel Station for his entire life and says he had never been disciplined for his behaviour before the incident.
But in May this year he was dismissed by Network Rail for gross misconduct for wanting to take a 20 minute break on his eight hour shift.
“They have taken everything from me,” he said.
“I started here as a box boy when I was 16 – it’s my whole life, and it’s completely shattered.
“I have given them everything and they have just cut it off for want of a rest break.”
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Mr Lee first won the right to take legal rest breaks in 2015 after following Network Rail’s own grievance procedure.
The Working Time Regulations Act 1998 states anyone working more than six hours at a time is entitled to a 20-minute rest break.
The result of Mr Lee’s action meant that workers at the station were able to take a 20 minute break on their eight hour early or late shift,
Monday to Saturday, but not during the 12 hour shifts on Sundays.
As a signalman, Mr Lee said he moved 36 trains an hour, operated CCTV crossings and level crossings, various occupational crossings for farmers and machinery moving across the line, and monitored track worker safety and blockages as part of his responsibilities.
“It’s a myriad of things. You’ve got to be alert at all times and you can’t be away from the panel as there is a train on it at every minute of every day.
“You’ve got to regulate the service, that’s the hardest part. My manager always said we think of you as air traffic control,” he said, adding that there is barely any time to use the toilet during the shift unless on a break.
“I come away from that signal box absolutely drained, and that’s just on an eight hour shift,” he added.
“Try working on a Sunday.”
On 8 January, Mr Lee said he arrived at work to be told his break that Thursday was cancelled as there would be no-one to cover for him. He said he had found three other people on the rota who could have covered his break, and informed his manager he would still take the 20 minutes he was entitled to, insisting it was his legal right.
The signalman then called up the surrounding stations and warned them not to send any trains through. He claimed this action resulted in one train out of the 36 that usually come through the area being delayed by 20 minutes.
But when he began shutting the signal box, which takes around 30 minutes, two of his managers arrived to inform him he had been suspended.
“I never got the chance to close the signal box as the managers approached me to suspend me before I could,” said Mr Lee.
“I found three people who could have done that job and nope, they sacked me instead,” he said.
“I would never put anyone travelling or working on the railway in any danger.” He was suspended with full pay until 18 May, when he was dismissed.
A spokesman for Network Rail said Mr Lee had closed a signal box “at the height of the weekday rush hour,” a claim that Mr Lee refutes.
They said: “It is true that he gave notice of this intention, but he was given a direct instruction by management not to do so, was reminded of the agreed process that was in place and advised of the potential consequences.”
“He was therefore disciplined for gross misconduct in failing to follow a reasonable management instruction.
“His dismissal was later upheld at appeal,” the spokesperson said.
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The appeal was conducted by Network Rail.
“Network Rail has a duty to protect members of the public and staff, together with upholding the operational integrity and safe running of the railway, the spokesperson added.
“The provision of an additional member of staff for meal break relief at Arundel was agreed collectively with the trade unions following a grievance procedure in 2015.
“The agreement includes a process for financial recompense when a meal break is not able to be provided due to short notice sickness, vacancies etc.
“The signaller is well aware of this process, having received payments as part of the local agreement on more than 20 occasions.
“If a meal break cannot be provided we work around it and agree a course of action with staff.
“This local agreement has generally worked well, the right to a break being balanced with the requirement to continually operate a train service.
“The agreement recognises that if an uninterrupted break is not provided, staff will not close the signal box as this would cause significant disruption to the travelling public, as happened in this case.”
Mr Lee has denied the claim that he received payments as part of the local agreement.
A petition against the dismissal has gained more than 6,300 signatures and Mr Lee conducted a protest at Arundel Station on Monday. A spokesman from the union for Rail, Maritime and Train workers (RMT) said: “RMT has supported Brother Lee throughout the disciplinary process.
We continue to provide him with that support and the union is currently in the process of preparing an industrial action ballot.”
Next week Mr Lee plans to travel to Network Rail’s offices with members of his local RMT branch to hand in his petition and protest outside the headquarters.
RMT has made an application to take Mr Lee’s case to employment tribunal. The original source of this article is the West Sussex County Times