YORKSHIRE ambulance staff are being balloted for strike action over shift pattern changes, which a union claims could mean paramedics going more than 10 hours without a meal break.

The Unite union said 450 members will vote on possible industrial action over the introduction of new ‘elongated shift patterns’ next month by the Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust.

In a statement strongly refuted by the Trust, the union claimed the shifts were not family friendly and would lead to an overtired workforce, impacting on patient safety, and said there had been no consultation with the union over the rotas.

Unite, which has been involved in a long-running dispute with the trust, said staff could go more than 10 hours without a meal break as such breaks would be at the whim of managers. It said it wanted a protected meal break of 30 minutes after six hours.

Regional officer Terry Cunliffe claimed members had been under sustained attack by the trust’s ‘hardline management’ for more than a year and said the latest ‘erosion in their employment conditions’ could affect their ability to do their jobs. The ballot closes on January 24.

The union added that it was increasingly concerned at an increasing use of private ambulance firms to 'plug the gaps' in NHS 999 responses, which it said was particularly noticeable in December and over the Christmas and New Year period.

Trust Chief Executive David Whiting said he refuted the union’s ‘misleading and factually incorrect claims.’

He claimed changes to staff rotas and rest breaks had been agreed after a period of consultation with staff and the union Unison, following a detailed and comprehensive review of the service which took place throughout 2013.

“They are being introduced following agreement with staff and their representatives and form part of changes we are making to improve our responsiveness for patients and increase operational efficiency,” he said.

“Staff welfare is a key priority for the Trust and whilst we have to ensure our staff are available to respond to emergencies, we balance this with adequate rest breaks for our staff.

"The new rotas will improve the allocation of rest breaks and the rest break period will be a minimum of 30 minutes during a 10-hour shift and 45 minutes during a 12-hour shift.”