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Nine foreign workers were killed in May 1998 when the scaffolding inside a chimney at Ashkelon's Rottenberg power plant collapsed. Four others were injured in that accident, one seriously. It was one of the worst work accidents in recent years caused by collapsing scaffolding, it wasn't the only one.

In the past five years there have been dozens of accidents at construction sites blamed on faulty scaffold planning, negligent scaffolding construction, and lack of supervision. Data collected by the Ministry of Labor indicate that half of the accidental deaths at construction sites are caused by faulty scaffolding.

In March 1994 temporary scaffolding at Shapirim overpass bridge collapsed and three concrete beams, each weighing dozens of tons plunged 60 meters to the road below. They crushed two cars traveling on the road, killing the drivers and a Romanian who was working on the bridge.

Peter Magnus, the chief work supervisor at the Ministry of Labor, says that most work accidents are the result of workers falling off scaffolding and not from the collapse of the structure. Parts of the scaffolding, mainly guard rails, are removed during construction to ease the entry building materials to the site.

The parts are not returned to their proper places on the scaffolding. Magnus said half the fatal accidents on construction sites were caused by falls from scaffolding that was missing guard rails.

Yoav Sarne, chairman of the Israeli Association of Construction and Infrastructure Engineers (IACIE), said: "The assembly of scaffolding at construction sites is often overseen by a local work manager operating by intuition. This contravenes the regulations, without any planning from the manager, who probably has had no appropriate professional training." This is one reason that scaffoldings collapse or that workers fall from unsafe scaffolding in accidents that bring serious injuries or loss of life.

In May 1997 a foreign construction worker from China was killed when he fell from scaffolding that collapsed at the Holot D construction sites in Rishon Letzion. In March 1995 two Romanian construction workers died when scaffolding on a building in Rehovot collapsed on them. About two weeks ago two construction workers from Turkey were injured while working on Project 2000 at Ben-Gurion Airport after part of the scaffolding collapsed on top of them.

Scaffolding is a temporary structure made of prefabricated units. Its purpose is to give builders access to high places, or to temporarily support concrete pourings. Guidelines for scaffolding and its assembly were set down by the Israeli Standards Institute in the Israeli Scaffolding Standard (IR 1139).

The standard dictates that scaffolding must be assembled from plans drawn up by an engineer, incorporating safety requirements and stress calculations for the loads the scaffolding will have to bear. Even so, the standard is not compulsory and deviating from it is not a criminal offense.

Natan Hilo, who heads the technical department at the Association of Contractors and Builders in Israel, says that those responsible for the assembly and quality of the scaffolding at a construction site are the work manager, the site engineer or the project manager. Hilo notes that the standard is comprehensive and thorough, but highly technical and special training is needed in order to understand it. "Work managers are not always familiar with all the various clauses of the standard so the work is not always carried out in keeping with its directives," he said.

In this matter Sarne added that the assembly of scaffolding according to the standard complicates and delays the construction job, so contractors sometimes look for shortcuts. The fact that the supervision is done by the contractor's employees allows him to take shortcuts.

There is a supervisory unit at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs whose job it is to conduct safety checks at construction sites. This unit is supposed to tour construction sites and check whether the work there is being done in accordance with the ministry's safety regulations which cover, among other things, the quality of scaffolding.

Unlike the scaffolding standard, which is not binding, the Labor Ministry's regulations are binding, and a deviation from them is a criminal offense. Hilo says, however, that there is not enough staff in the unit and they don't visit every construction site. Supervision is, in effect, therefore left in the hands of the contractor.

Magnus admits that the supervision department is unable to visit all the construction sites. He says that the work manager is responsible for the ongoing safety of a site and that he must be approved by the ministry and must be familiar with the work safety regulations.

The fact remains, however, that the lion's share of work accidents in the past few years have been caused by falls from scaffolding. In March 1998 a resident of the Palestinian Authority controlled areas died after he fell from a scaffold on a nine-story building in Netanya.

In June 1997 a Romanian worker died after falling off scaffolding on the fifth floor of a residential building in the Ganei Ya'ar neighborhood of Lod. In May 1996 a construction worker died after falling while setting up scaffolding on the fourth floor of a construction site on Tabenkin St. in the Neve Sha'anan neighborhood of Tel Aviv.

Even though in most cases the problem is with the planning of the scaffolding and not with the quality of the materials used, this area is also a problem and sometimes inferior materials are used when there is no supervision. Sarne says that even though good quality materials are usually used, sometimes contractors use unsuitable materials that do not meet the standard.

Hilo says that scaffolding is made of materials that deteriorate with wear and that after a lot of use the threads on the bolts in the prefabricated units of the scaffolding wear away and can cause the unit to come loose.

He notes that companies that rent out scaffolding are supposed to sort through the units at the end of every project and discard any defective units. In effect however, there is no supervisory body that checks the sorting and there is no way of knowing if it is actually done.

One of the main problems in supervising the soundness of scaffolding has to do with the punishment for violators. Magnus says that in most cases the punishments handed down by the labor courts against contractors who violate the law - fines of less than NIS 10,000 - are not a sufficient deterrent because they are miniscule when compared to the cost of a building.

"The court ruling about a year ago, to give prison sentences to six of those responsible for the collapse of the scaffolding at the Shapirim bridge site," says Sarne, "sent shock waves through the construction industry."

The court determined that the scaffolding was planned without taking into account the ability of the system to withstand the required load and sentenced the six men involved, among them an engineer and a planning department employee from Sollel Boneh, an on-site engineer and the work manager, to several months in prison. The convicted men appealed the sentence and their appeal will be heard starting next month.

"The attitude toward scaffolding changed after that incident," says Sarne. "Until then the planning and construction of scaffolding was taken lightly, at least by the big companies." This was apparently because for the first time the administrative echelon was convicted and because the six people involved received heavy sentences.

Even so, sources in the industry feel that scaffolding is still not taken seriously enough and that supervision need to be increased and punishments made more severe.