BALFOUR BEATTY Rail Renewals is to carry out a review of its safety and standards manuals after finding that almost a quarter of its workforce has difficulty with reading and writing.
Managing director Eric Prescott admitted this week that the company had employed a communications consultant to carry out the literacy audit following concerns that some track workers could not fill in forms or understand internal documents.
A meeting in January will decide how to solve the problem but it will consider converting manuals to video format, greater use of pictures, and reading classes for staff. It has also asked Railtrack to make its safety and standards documents easier to understand.
'We have to recognise that not everyone has a level of literacy which is appropriate to the industry,' said Prescott. 'It is very difficult for people to admit that they can't read but I don't want anyone to feel threatened by this. We have to take the right approach.'
Prescott insisted there was 'no evidence' that track workers and rail passengers were being put at risk by operatives failing to understand safety guidelines. 'Everyone has to pass a personal track safety test; the main driver for this is a business issue,' he said.
The admission comes two months into the National Year of Reading campaign. Project director Liz Attenborough claimed that more than a quarter of adults in Britain have poor literacy standards and added: 'This matters much more now because so much material is being sent out in written form.'
Under the campaign, companies are encouraged to set up workplace libraries, reading lessons and to help teach children in the community to read. Large firms including Boots, Sainsbury's, Ford Motor Company, Rolls Royce and Walkers snack foods have pledged support, but so far materials company RMC is the only construction-related organisation to get involved.
But other rail contractors gave a mixed reactions to Balfour Beatty's revelation. Two company directors said they were not surprised the level of illiteracy was so high, but said they had not considered doing anything about it. A third company said it had carried out research into literacy three years ago and found a problem with only four of its 900 workforce.
A spokesman for Railtrack confirmed it was considering making safety manuals easier to read but added: 'At the end of the day it is up to our contractors to make sure they are competent enough to do the work.'