New safety rules could mean heavy fines for laboratories which fail to notify the Government that they are starting work with natural infectious agents.
The rules, which came into force last week, coincide with a report claiming that universities face a bill of Pounds 133 million in order to catch up with health and safety legislation.
Last week's legislation means that laboratories must notify the Health and Safety Executive if they start growing or storing any of 300 micro-organisms, including the ones that cause hepatitis and tuberculosis. Until last week the list included just ten infectious agents.
The rules come as universities are still coping with the huge "six-pack" of regulations introduced in 1992. A report by the University of Greenwich has found that most universities have no long-term plans for implementing the rules and are confused about which are the most urgent safety issues, despite signs that the HSE will soon start to toughen up on compliance.
Researchers from Greenwich's faculty of the built environment, led by David Wills, found that Pounds 90 million is needed to bring university buildings and infrastructure up to scratch. Buildings built between 1960 and 1980 produce the biggest bills, partly because of work needed on their large expanses of window and their flat rooves.
The report, sponsored by property consultant Grimley J. R. Eve, was based on questionnaires filled in by 56 institutions, case studies and a literature review. It claims that costs could treble if the HSE made the strictest interpretation possible of the regulations.
Universities were criticised for putting urgent issues to the bottom of the pile. None surveyed had done a complete, recorded risk assessment, which is the most urgent priority and would cost an estimated Pounds 19 million. Meanwhile, many are working on regulations that do not become law for a year.
The report said that some of the most costly work involves producing safe floor surfaces, protection against falls and safe window-cleaning. Yet universities did not rate these as expensive. Instead they were worried about the price of less costly problems such as ventilation and lighting.
The report criticised the HSE for not issuing clear enough instructions. It advised institutions to keep asking the HSE for advice because complying with a safety instruction often hinges on how the rules are interpreted.
But, it says "there will probably be no precise clarity on these matters until either the health and safety enforcement agencies begin inspecting in earnest or until legal precedent results from test cases".