A shortage of public health workers is creating a serious problem in Prince George's County, delaying inspections of food establishments and building sites, county officials said yesterday.

County Council members, in a letter to Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, called the situation an emergency and warned that the problem would have a serious economic impact.

Officials said the county has too few inspectors to conduct soil tests required for some building construction and predicted that could delay construction for up to a year and discourage some developers from building in the county.

"I really feel rather frantic about this," said Dr. Helen B. McAllister, Prince George's health officer. "We've had a severe loss, a regular loss, of people. We've ended up with almost no experienced sanitarians."

McAllister told the council that sanitarians, who conduct food inspections, soil percolation tests and other tasks, are resigning because of low salaries. The workers, state employes assigned to the county, are paid starting salaries of $15,000 a year, she said.

Fourteen of Prince George's 56 positions for sanitarians are vacant, she said.

The resulting inadequate inspections of restaurants and other food services could mean increased risks of food infections such as salmonella, she said. Delayed testing of swimming pools this summer could mean health problems from inadequate chlorination, she said.

In addition, the council said in its letter to Hughes, "The rapid staff turnover has led to largely untrained and inexperienced workers being asked to assume technical responsibilities of major significance." All seven of the county's water and sewer sanitarians on staff have less than a year's experience, McAllister said.

The health officer said she is paying her remaining workers at an overtime rate to work evenings and hiring temporary workers on a contract basis in an effort to ease the shortage. Health officials soon will propose that the council convert the positions -- now state jobs assigned to the county -- into county positions at higher salaries.

McAllister said the inspectors are leaving primarily for jobs with the state Department of Health's central office. The new jobs offer pay raises of up to $5,000 and expanded prospects for promotion, she said.

Prince George's also must compete with Montgomery County, one of three jurisdictions in the state that hires its own health workers. Montgomery County sanitarians make a starting wage of about $23,000 a year, according to state health official Ruth Singer.