After Dozens of Deaths, Israel Pushes Municipalities to Answer for Building Safety

Social Affairs Ministry's 18 inspectors cannot keep up with 13,000 building sites countrywide; move would increase inspectors to 2,500.

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The site of a crane collapse at a construction site in Ramat Gan, March 19, 2017.
The site of a crane collapse at a construction site in Ramat Gan, March 19, 2017.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Social Affairs Ministry wants local governments to start taking responsibility for safety supervision of building sites under their jurisdictions, as stipulated by law.

In a letter sent Tuesday to municipalities throughout Israel, the Occupational Safety Administration listed three steps it was expecting them to take immediately: Include a list of safety demands in the building permits they issue contractors; submit a list of all the building sites and cranes operating in their area to the ministry; and instruct local building inspectors to supervise safety at the sites they visit. The latter would be a significant force multiplier of the 18 Social Affairs Ministry inspectors who currently operate throughout the country.

The ministry, however, cannot impose sanctions on locales that do not cooperate. According to ministry officials, this issue will be further examined as needed.

The Municipalities Ordinance already holds local authorities responsible for safety on building sites in their domains, but in practice this is ineffectual; it is the 18 ministry inspectors who must check safety on some 13,000 building sites, making it impossible for them to keep up.

But with construction accidents claiming the lives of dozens of workers every year, injuring thousands and costing the government billions of dollars, the ministry now wants cities to assume responsibility. Local inspectors who enforce planning and building laws and investigate building violations already visit the sites as part of their work. The ministry wants them to also check the sites' safety conditions. This would mean some 2,500 additional inspectors making safety checks.

“Now contractors know that a [safety] inspector will come to their site maybe once in two years, if at all, and they can let safety matters slide without being caught,” said Ran Cohen, head of the ministry’s Occupational Safety Division. “The moment municipal inspectors come into the picture, contractors will understand that they can no longer neglect employee safety. There will be 2,500 inspectors instead of 18 if the local authorities get on board.” Local inspectors will be asked to enforce safety regulations at building sites, but will not be called in the event of an accident, as ministry inspectors are.

Even before safety conditions are enforced, the ministry wants the locales to make them an integral part of the building permit application, which is not the case in most municipalities. The ministry has formulated six safety requirements, including preparing a safety plan and working at a safe distance from electrical wires. Since the local inspectors will be asked to enforce the six requirements, and the ministry suggests offering training courses for them in the field.

The goal is to prevent accidents such as the case of Suheil Nimer, 23, of Kira, who receiecause such problems occur repeatedly, the Labor Ministry waved an electric shock at a building site in Bnei Brak and fell three stories to his death. During the past four months, three other construction workers were electrocuted at building sites by high-tension wires that had not been reported to the Social Affairs Ministry.

The safety administration is supposed to shut down a building site where such an accident occurs for 48 hours until the safety deficiency is fixed. But the Bnei Brak site is yet to be closed, because the ministry, the municipality and the police have not been able to determine the responsible contractor. Due to a recurrence of such cases, the ministry is asking municipalities to map out the building sites and cranes in their jurisdictions and submit all the details.

The Israel Association of Municipal Engineers was infuriated by the ministry’s letter, and claimed that the ministry was abdicating its responsibility. “Eighteen inspectors responsible for a whole country is a badge of shame and it’s about time that the safety issue received a ministerial, countrywide response from the responsible ministry,” the association said in a statement. It said that municipal engineers make sure there are safety procedures cited in the building permits, “including the contractor’s obligation to present a safety plan and relevant certification for the crane,” but the safety of the site during the actual work is the responsibility of the contractor and the site manager. “The Social Affairs Ministry must oversee the contractors for whom they are responsible. It is moving the responsibility to the engineers and is trying to shirk its own responsibility that it’s neglected for years,” the statement said.

In response, the safety division’s Cohen said, “Construction accidents affect everyone, and anyone who can prevent them must work to do so. We are not trying to shirk responsibility, we are explaining that if a crane falls in a downtown area it’s not just the Social Affairs Ministry’s problem, but the mayor’s problem, too.”

Cohen agreed that there should be more national inspectors but added, “We don’t have to wait for more people to be killed for local inspectors to join the effort.” He noted, for example, that after a crane collapsed in Ramat Gan last week, the city initiated an inspection of the crane permits at all the city’s building sites, and found that at four sites the cranes were being operated without a permit.