The Histadrut labor federation filed suit on Thursday against a construction company that fired a tower crane operator for refusing to work in high wind conditions.
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The suit by Israel’s main trade-union umbrella organization is a first-of-its-kind effort to enforce a safety regulation that requires crane operators to shut down their cranes when they think wind conditions make it unsafe to work.
The suit, filed in the Be’er Sheva Labor Court against Machluf Behor and Sons, was prompted by a report in Haaretz last week on the dismissal of Katy Karkolov. It demands at least 620,000 ($160,000) shekels in compensation for Karkolov — 500,000 shekels for unlawful termination, worker endangerment and violation of a workers’ dignity. It also claims that Karkolov was dismissed partly because she is a single mother with two children, which would constitute illegal discrimination, and demands an additional 120,000 shekels over this.
Karkolov, a trained tower-crane operator, began working at a Machluf Behor construction site in Ashkelon in March 2015. About two weeks ago, on February 21, the suit said, she and her colleagues noticed that high winds were causing the 70-meter-high crane to shake.
Fearing for her safety, Karkolov immediately got down. At the time, according to the Israel Meteorological Service, wind speeds in Ashkelon had reached 40 kilometers per hour.
After her supervisor disparaged Karkolov’s decision to come down and threatened to fire her if she didn’t go back up immediately, she complied. But she stopped working once more when she felt the crane shake again.
She says her supervisor insulted and threatened her again. Fearing she would lose her job, she went up a third time and began working. But soon afterward, she was told that because of her behavior, she was being fired on the spot.
Israel’s occupational safety regulations explicitly again that tower cranes must not be operated in high winds that could threaten the crane’s stability and endanger the workers in it or around it. The regulation in question also states that the crane operator is responsible for enforcing this rule. A different regulation says a person cannot be ordered to work in violation of a safety regulation.
Thus by forcing Karkolov and her colleagues to work when they considered the conditions unsafe, the company was both breaking the law and endangering their lives, the suit argued. It also violated worker safety provisions included in its collective bargaining agreement, the suit added.
The suit said the company’s abuse of Karkolov continued even after she was fired: After she told her story to the media, Machluf Behor threatened to sue her for slander, claiming she hadn’t accurately described the chain of events.
The claim that Karkolov was fired partly because she was a single mother, thereby violating the Equal Employment Opportunities Law, is based on a media interview given by the building site supervisor, Haim Attiya, in which he effectively said as much.
“She takes long vacations, and the children, and she’s divorced, it doesn’t matter what, personal issues, with children,” he said. “So every time, she has a problem, it’s not suitable for her, that’s it,” Attiya said.
Karkolov told Haaretz that “The suit proves to me there’s light at the end of the tunnel. All I wanted was to come home in one piece ... I wasn’t willing to work under life-threatening conditions. In the end, I need to support my children, and I’ll fight for my truth all the way.”
The Histadrut said Karkolov’s dismissal reflected a much broader problem. “There are dozens, if not hundreds, of old cranes, operated by crane operators in shifts of at least 12 hours, under difficult sanitary and safety conditions,” it said in a statement.
“This ongoing disregard for life and limb, alongside the published reports of more and more people being killed at buildings sites, has led hundreds of crane operators to join the Histadrut,” it added.
Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn praised Karkolov for her “determination and courage,” stressing that “her battle isn’t a personal one, but a battle for all the industry’s workers.”