Despite Spike in Fatal Work Accidents, Israeli Police Reluctant to Investigate

As deaths have increased, likelihood of investigation has actually decreased

FILE PHOTO: Work accident in central Israeli city of Yavneh, Mary 2019.
Ilan Assayag

Despite attempts to prevent construction-site accidents and harsh criticism of police investigations, new data show that the police close files on most fatal accidents despite a dramatic spike in such deaths.

Between 2016 and 2018, police did not open any criminal investigations in 75 percent of fatal or serious accidents at construction sites. This data, published here for the first time, has emerged from official police numbers that were obtained after freedom of information requests were filed by Kav LaOved, the Workers’ Hotline. In this period there were 118 fatal work accidents, leading to 124 deaths, and 585 accidents leading to serious or moderate injuries.

Despite growing awareness of these accidents and criticism by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan regarding the nature of investigations of these incidents during these years, in comparison to the period between 2011 to 2015, there was a drop in the number of criminal investigations opened.

>> Read more: Unlicensed crane Operator arrested in Tel Aviv as construction deaths rise ■ Israel’s construction accidents: Not mishaps, but negligence  | Editorial

According to data police provided the Knesset, between 2011 and 2015, 27.6 percent of accidents led to criminal investigations, whereas in the more recent period, only 24.9 percent of accidents were investigated. According to police rules, a non-criminal investigation is launched for every work accident. It is followed up only if there is a suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. In February 2016, the police and Labor Ministry said they had adopted a new procedure meant to improve law enforcement, but the data show this did not lead to any changes.

The data show that between 2016 and 2018 there was a 77 percent spike in the number of construction site accidents, compared to 2011-2015. In the earlier period there were 160 accidents per year, on average, growing to 283 per year in the later period.

“Not opening a criminal investigation means that the police did not find a suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. In other words, the police believe that these accidents are a decree from heaven, or the fault of the victims,” says attorney Gadeer Nicola from Kav LaOved.

“It’s regrettable that after three and a half years of vigorous public campaigning for increasing the safety of construction workers, we find that nothing has changed at the two organizations charged with investigating and prosecuting offenders,” Nicola continued. “We put the issue of criminal investigation and prosecution of transgressors at the top of our list of demands from the outset, in an effort to promote deterrence and the addressing of this plague of construction-site accidents. We worked everywhere, including petitioning the High Court of Justice. Different authorities promised to make changes, saying that they were cooperating in order to make investigations more effective. In the state’s response to our petition, it said the cooperation and its implementation were being monitored by the State Prosecutor’s Office, but the data show that over the last three years it and the police have failed in promoting workers’ safety.”

The data also show that only in 54 percent of the files opened in 2016-2018 was the criminal investigation completed and the case transferred to state prosecutors. Forty-five percent of transferred files were closed due to “lack of evidence.” Regarding the rest, the police don’t know their fate and the State Prosecutor’s Office refused to release any information on the topic, even when given the numbers of police files.

Even though 124 people paid with their lives, only in 38 cases of suspected criminal negligence leading to death did the police complete their investigation, passing the files on to state prosecutors. Eight of these were closed due to lack of evidence, and the police don’t know if the rest led to prosecutions.

Of 77 files relating to negligent cause of bodily harm that were passed on to prosecutors, 57 percent were closed. The police refused to say how many indictments were filed, saying that this was up to state prosecutors. Kav LaOved says this refusal is unacceptable since the police have the data, and releasing it is no problem.

A request by Haaretz for information from state prosecutors about files they’ve received from the police went unanswered, even though Haaretz gave them all the relevant information released by the police. They said, “In 2018, 33 files relating to construction-site accidents were received. In 15 of these, charges were filed, but that may include files that were opened in earlier years.”

State prosecutors would not give more complete information on indictments that were filed. Information they did give shows that between 2010 and 2016, 148 files were opened, 96 of which were shelved. In 27 cases, charges were filed. Fifteen of the 27 cases dealt with fatal accidents, 12 with injuries. In eight of these there has been no decision yet, 17 are filed as “other.”

“There is no better proof of the negligent attitude of the authorities than the lack of a unified, orderly database that could give a clear and reliable picture of the situation. The police gave us partial answers, while state prosecutors did not relate to the situation of the files they got from the police. This is very grave, since we know that extracting data based on police file numbers is possible, and they’ve done it in the past for the Knesset research office,” adds Nicola.

Tracking of indictments that were filed in recent years shows that in most cases they are filed years after the accident, which impacts the severity of sentences given to those responsible, while making it hard for the families of the victims who are waiting for details about the circumstances surrounding the death of their loved ones, and for justice to be served.

For example, state prosecutors filed an indictment only in May 2019 over the death of a crane operator in January 2016. “Anyone reading the file can see that this was not a complicated case that warranted such a long time before filing charges. Bringing to justice those responsible for being negligent in causing death or injury should be quick and effective so as to create deterrence among contractors,” said a staffer at Kav LaOved.

Another case involves a contractor charged only in May 2018 for an incident in 2015, when he removed the dead body of a worker from rubble, so that the victim could be brought to burial in his village. The unlicensed contractor then changed his mind and returned the body to the work site, leading to charges of obstruction of justice. Another case involves a contractor telling his workers to place a helmet beside the body of a worker who fell to his death, telling them to lie to investigators that the victim had been wearing the helmet, although he had not provided them with safety equipment. He was charged more than two years after the accident.

“The inconceivable foot-dragging before indictments even in the few cases that are investigated undermines the purpose of criminal justice, of creating deterrence and setting standards of behavior. Waiting three to four years weakens the ability to prove guilt or to bring witnesses, as well as affecting sentencing. Courts are more lenient when five or six years have passed,” says Nicola.

On the last day of 2018, after years of delay, the police set up a unit for investigating work-related accidents. So far, it’s investigated only three of the 38 fatal accidents this year. One of these three took place in Yavne, when four workers died in a crane collapse. The media gave that accident wide coverage due to the high number of deaths and because the victims, atypically, were Jews. Other accidents that occurred at the same site a month earlier were not investigated by this unit.

In response to a freedom of information application by Kav LaOved, police acknowledged that the new unit would only investigate incidents that have more unique characteristics, or are more complex, such as infrastructure collapse, or cases that require more resources and know-how.

The Israel Police commented: “When there is any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing leading to negligent death or injury, based on findings at the scene and on a report by the Labor and Social Services Ministry, a criminal investigation is conducted by the police in seemly and required cooperation with officials in the ministry.

“Moreover, the police exercise their authority in shutting down construction sites in which serious flaws in safety features are found, ones that can impact public safety.

“It should be noted that over the last few years, more than a hundred officers and investigators in all police stations have received training which enables them to deal with these issues. Furthermore, a new unit called Peles has been established, designed to investigate work-related accidents. The unit is part of the national Lahav 433 unit which investigates economic crimes. The new unit will focus on enforcement, in conjunction with inspectors from the Labor and Social Services Ministry, as well as handling complex files related to accidents in the workplace. Enforcement will combine administrative measures with criminal investigations.”