Local businesses could be hundreds or even thousands of pounds worse off if proposals from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) come into force in April.
The HSE is proposing that when an inspection of premises reveals a “material breach of legislation”, that is, one that could cause an accident, the company will be charged for the inspection and for the preparation of letters and enforcement notices that are issued.
If an accident occurs, the company concerned will also be required to foot the bill for an HSE investigation. As there is no HSE presence in the isles and investigations take several days, the cost to businesses, which would be based on an hourly fee, could be considerable.
Councillors at a meeting of the council’s environment and transport committee on Wednesday agreed to write to the HSE expressing their concerns.
Environmental health chief Maggie Dunne said that the charges were being proposed to reflect the time-consuming work of checking the legislation and writing letters and enforcement notices, should they be needed. Letters would incur a charge of £750 and enforcement notices £1,500.
Ms Dunne said that 27 such letters had been issued to Shetland businesses since 2007, which would have cost local companies thousands of pounds had charges been levied. In the case of an accident or fatality at work the costs could be unlimited and charged in full to the company. At present the HSE investigate along with the police but no charge is made.
Ms Dunne said: “It would be a big change for businesses. The legislation is very complicated, people [in the workplace] do their very best and still don’t know everything. Businesses don’t have a health and safety officer.”
Almost every visit from the HSE could trigger a letter, she said, in fact it would be unusual if it did not as slight breaches were “very easy to find”.
At present, she said, the HSE gives a lot of support and she feared that people might not want to ask for advice from an enforcer.
The legislation could cover fish farms, crofts and even village halls if work is taking place.
Chairman of the meeting Frank Robertson said that if “peripheral” areas of business were drawn in by the legislation it could affect everything in Shetland, and he expressed concern about the level of charges.
Shetland North councillor Alastair Cooper said farmers and small businesses would “feel it sorely” and North Isles councillor Robert Henderson said: “The last thing we want to do is impede businesses going about their daily business.”
Shetland South councillor Rick Nickerson put forward a motion to write a letter in response to the proposals pointing out the impact on small businesses in rural areas. He was seconded by North Isles councillor Josie Simpson.