Invisible Casualties: Three Workers Killed at Building Sites

Contractors are rarely punished for safety infractions and government efforts to stem the tide of fatalities, such as these, are useless.

A Tel Aviv building site.
Ofer Vaknin

Three construction workers died on Monday after falling from the buildings on which they were working in Tel Aviv and two other central Israeli towns, Shoham and Arsuf. Two of the workers were Palestinians from the West Bank; the third was a resident of central Israel. All three were in their fifties.

Deaths at building sites is not an exceptional phenomenon in the country. In August eight workers were killed. In 2014, a total of 31 people were killed at local construction sites, and a similar number died in such accidents in 2013. In all of Great Britain, 46 laborers died in construction incidents in 2014.

So, an Israeli construction worker is nearly six times more likely to be killed than his British counterpart, but no one seems to care. Moreover, the 300 or so people killed on building sites during the past decade is several times greater than the number of Israelis killed in terror attacks and wars in that same period.

But dead construction workers are apparently invisible. No one cares about what they do in their spare time, no one will interview their children about the loss of their father, and no one will demonstrate and demand that their blood be avenged.

It is significant that nearly all of the victims are Israeli Arabs or Palestinians, sometimes illegal workers who have been sacrificed because of the real-estate fever that has seized Israel in recent years. It’s hard to dismiss the feeling that their blood is cheap.

The Economy Ministry, which is responsible for occupational safety, seemed to have good intentions but is in fact unable to deal with the problem. A report on safety in the workplace, published a year and a half ago by a committee headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Udi Adam, chairman of Israel Military Industries, hasn’t succeeded in reducing the casualties. Nor did humorous public service announcements do the job.

The primary problem is that in recent decades, no contractor has ever done jail time for a worker killed on his building site, and the fines levied instead are no deterrent when compared to the huge sums changing hands in this field. The Economy Ministry’s efforts to effect change in this realm are symbolic and toothless. The police and Justice Ministry are also responsible, but prefer to close cases through relatively lenient plea bargains.

Hassan Shuli, a safety engineer, is trying to fight this tragic trend, but feels he hasn’t made much headway. When he would complain about the safety situation at certain building sites, instead of Economy Ministry inspectors coming, stopping the work and fining the contractor – they would ask him to file an affidavit and sue.

“I told them, hand out fines – why should I do it?” says Shuli. “Why shouldn’t a contractor have a criminal record like any citizen who commits a crime? Most accidents can be prevented. In this area we aren’t the third world, we’re the fifth world.”