Small business owners face up to two years in prison for failing to implement proper health and safety procedures following a legal change imposing severe punishments for breaches.

The Health and Safety Offences Act 2008 came into force last month. It raises the maximum fine which may be imposed in the lower courts to £20,000 for most health and safety offences. It also gives the option of imprisoning employers for a greater number of offences.

The maximum fine that can be imposed in the higher courts remains unlimited.

Judith Hackett, chairwoman of the Health and Safety Executive, championed the change as a “real deterrent” to businesses which failed to take health and safety responsibilities seriously.

“We will continue to target those who knowingly cut corners, put lives at risk and who gain commercial advantage by failing to comply with the law,” she said.

The Forum of Private Business (FPB) slammed the move, and called for more guidance to help small businesses better understand the law.

Recent research by the FPB found the burden of health and safety regulations to be the most significant barrier to small business growth.

The organisation has produced a Health & Safety guide to help business owners stay up to date with the law.