After Israel Commits to Stringent Standards for Scaffolding, Knesset Approves Softer Demands

Pressured by contractors, lawmakers approve relatively lenient demands amid growing concern over jeopardized construction workers

Construction workers seen at work in Jerusalem's Ramot neighborhood, May 2018.
Emil Salman

After striking down an adoption of European standards for scaffolding at construction sites, a Knesset committee approved on Tuesday, under pressure by contractors, less stringent demands than those the government had committed to.

Following the vote at the Knesset Labor and Social Affairs Committee, The Histadrut Labor Federation retracted a statement calling for a nationwide strike over safety at construction sites.

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In contrast to the original deal between the Histadrut Labor Federation and the government made in November, contractors will not have to replace scaffolding they now own with new beams. They can continue using the older ones on condition that their manufacturers state that they meet European standards.

This raised questions regarding the condition of scaffolding, which in most cases has been in use for a decade or two.

The original deal called for switching to new scaffolding that meets European standards within six months, in cases in which the scaffolding reaches a height of 6 meters (20 feet). In cases in which it was less high, contractors had 18 months to make the switch. According to the updated agreement, only in projects reaching a height of 30 meters (18 percent of all sites) would contractors have to meet European standards within six months. In cases of heights of 8 to 30 meters, used in half of all construction sites, contractors will have 18 months. For lower heights they will have 3 years to change over.

Contractors exerted heavy pressure on the committee over the last few days, saying that the initial deal would increase housing prices. Contractors and the Builders Association quoted a price tag of 1 billion shekels ($270 million) for carrying out the original version. According to the Labor Ministry, changing all the scaffolding in Israel would cost only 20 million shekels.

After the meeting, some contractors yelled at Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn: “Shame on you, the Histadrut acted like a mafia. If we go bankrupt, we’ll show up at your house.”

However, Nissenkorn welcomed the new guidelines. “I accept this plan even though it differs from the original deal with the government,” he said. “The goal we set is that gradually, all scaffolding will meet European standards. Israel cannot remain behind.”

Hadas Tagari, who heads a group fighting construction-related accidents, said: “I welcome the approval of these guidelines regarding scaffolding standards, even though their implementation is delayed for longer than the government committed to. Despite this delay, it is very important to start the process of instating new standards which will eventually improve the quality of scaffolding and the level of safety at construction sites.”

The Israel Builders Association said that “following the decision to approve the gradual transition to European standards, the association will continue to monitor and act to ensure that this industry can adapt its operations to the new standards. The association calls on the government to support workers setting up scaffolding in order to ensure their financial wellbeing, and to ensure that the transition will affect construction only minimally."

The last time standards were adjusted was 30 years ago. The standard in Israel is based on the European one, but it applies only to sale or rental of equipment, not to contractors who use it on construction sites.

According to an official report by the Labor Ministry published in Haaretz in November, eight deaths a year could have been avoided if proper scaffolding would had been used. From 2017 to 2018, this would have amounted to avoiding about 30 percent of the fatal construction site accidents. The number of injuries caused by poor scaffolding currently stands at 1,680 people per year.

The Workers Hotline said that 63 percent of accidents in construction this year that resulted in death or medium to serious injuries happened due to workers falling from a height. 52 falls were from a height of under 8 meters, 50 from a height of over 8 meters, and 22 falls were from an unreported height.