Fewer than one in ten Midland organisations has started to make preparations for new Age Discrimination regulations, according to a survey by Black Country law firm George Green.

Partner and head of employment Tim Lang says that, although the new regulations will not come into force until October 1 next year, employment tribunals will take into account organisations' behaviour before that date.

"Once again many Midlands' companies are taking a worrying ostrich attitude towards employment issues, burying their heads in the sand and hoping they will go away. However, age discrimination is a major plank of the Government's reform of employment practice and is here to stay," said Mr Lang, who is based in George Green's Cradley Heath offices.

If employers do not act, they could face unlimited fines.

He said: "Future claimants will be able to point to things happening today to establish that their employer discriminates on the grounds of age. In line with all other types of discrimination, if proven, employment tribunals will make awards on the basis of injuries of feelings and financial losses.

"These usually amount to tens of thousands of pounds, but there is no ceiling limit, so employers should be warned."

In a region-wide survey, carried out by George Green, it was found that firms with less than 50 employees were least likely to be aware of the impending age discrimination regulations, with those with more than 500 employees most likely to have started changing working practices and culture.

"It is really only the firms which can afford a full-time human resources department which are on top of the new regulations, but, as with all employment legislation, it is the smaller ones which are most likely to be caught out and most likely to end up being punished by an employment tribunal," said Mr Lang. "Time spent reading up on the new regulations could go a long way to help keeping them out of long-term trouble."

The aim of the new regulations is to remove discrimination on the grounds of age for all workers. They will impact on every aspect of an organisation's employment policies - from recruitment to pensions.

"One of the greatest misnomers about the new regulations is that they are designed to prevent discrimination against older workers," he said. "However, they will apply equally to all workers, so younger people could just as well bring a claim for discrimination as older ones."

He believes experience of age discrimination legislation in the Republic of Ireland and in the United States shows it is set to be a major source of claims from workers who feel they have a grievance.

The first step for UK firms towards compliance with the regulations should be to eliminate all "ageist" language in employment policies and job adverts.