BATTERED Northern Ireland quarriers face huge cost increases unless lorry drivers are given an exemption from the working time directive.
Quarriers claim moves to limit the number of hours worked by drivers will leave the sector £35 million in the red, with operators struggling to cover the cost of extra manpower needed to keep output at current levels.
The directive would also leave hundreds of owners and drivers facing the repossession of machines, according to industry representatives.
Gordon Best, regional manager for Quarry Products Association Northern Ireland (QPANI), pointed to the exemption given to some other industries, and said this should also be granted to the quarrying sector.
He said: 'Our industry relies on drivers carrying materials on a daily multi-drop basis where the distances travelled are small.
'The QPANI believes transport in our sector should be exempted from the directive in a similar way to the gas and electricity industries and the post office.'
Mr Best described the implications of the directive as a 'kick in the teeth' for the industry, which is already reeling under the threat of hundreds of job losses as a result of the introduction of the aggregate tax.
He added that limiting the working hours for an owner or driver would force many of them into bankruptcy.
He warned: 'Fewer working hours could mean some owner/drivers will face a loss of up to £15,000 per year. That would be enough to bankrupt anybody.'
Mr Best revealed that QPANI is to submit an appeal to the Department of Trade and Industry in an effort to gain an exemption from the directive.
The working time directive, due to come into full effect in early 2005, will limit drivers to an average 48-hour working week over any 17-week period.
Operators will be able work a maximum of 60 hours in any week, as long as the average working week during a four-month period does not exceed 48 hours.
Currently, drivers work an average shift of 12 hours. Cutting the number of hours they can work will lead to drivers rushing journeys, increase the number of vehicles on the road and also the number of accidents, according to Mr Best.
He said: 'Most companies will put more lorries on the road to maintain the level of service and owner/drivers will rush to maintain their workloads. This will have a negative effect on road safety, as well as on the environment.'