Analysis

Why Israel Isn't Doing More to Prevent Construction Workers' Deaths

'Because of their negligent conduct and extreme foot-dragging in moving forward or making decisions, the casualties are continuing, and even worse, the number of deaths is rising'

Building site where four workers were killed in a crane collapse, Yavne, May 19, 2019.
Ilan Assayag

On November 6, 2018, the Labor, Finance and Housing and Construction ministries signed an agreement with the Histadrut to improve the safety at construction sites, following a threat by the labor federation to stage a general strike.

The agreement followed decades of disregard for the safety situation by both the government and the Histadrut and three years of a public struggle and media demands to reduce the number of fatalities, which is twice the average of OECD countries.

The agreement was meant to tighten safety inspections and increase penalties and sanctions immediately. But more than half a year after the agreement was signed, most of its clauses have yet to be implemented.

The agency responsible for implementing the agreement, the Labor Ministry’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has been operating for over six months without a director. MKs Eli Alalouf and Eyal Ben-Reuven, who were advancing the struggle against construction accidents in the previous Knesset, were not reelected.

Also of concern is the fact that Avi Nissenkorn, the former Histadrut chairman, who had actively promoted the agreement and is the one who signed it, is now a politician and it isn’t clear whether his successor, Arnon Bar-David, is equally committed to the issue.

The Labor Ministry and the Histadrut have stressed that all the clauses in the agreement are being advanced, although perhaps not at the promised pace, and both sides claim that progress is being made “rapidly for a government ministry.” But the situation on the ground is getting worse: The number of construction site casualties in 2019 is up dozens of percentage points compared to previous years, with 16 workers killed so far and 60 moderately or seriously injured. Since the start of the year, there have been 31 people killed in work accidents in all industries.

Social activists are worried. “The miserable performance of the state authorities reflects their level of commitment to the safety of building workers and their basic right to live,” said attorney Gadir Nicolas of Kav LaOved. “Because of their negligent conduct and extreme foot-dragging in moving forward or making decisions, the casualties are continuing, and even worse, the number of deaths is rising. This situation requires the Histadrut to resume the battle and push for the implementation of the decisions, even if a general strike is necessary.”

Hadas Tagari, director of the Coalition Against Construction Site Accidents, concurs. “The list of commitments the state made under pressure from the Histadrut is a positive, if partial, step toward advancing the issue. However, of these commitments, most of the ones dealing directly with the safety of workers doing the dangerous jobs haven’t been implemented and their implementation doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. It doesn’t seem as if this critical issue is on the Histadrut’s agenda.”

The Histadrut said in response, “The Histadrut has allocated a great deal of manpower and resources to monitor and be involved in the advancement and implementation of processes. We must stress that working to improve safety at work and in the building trades requires the interface of various agencies, including government agencies responsible for enforcement.”

Construction site where a worker was killed, Petah Tikva, May 16, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Netting

One of the first clauses in the agreement was to establish a professional team to implement the installation of protective netting at construction sites within three months. This netting, which in many European countries is mandatory, is designed to protect both passersby from objects that fall and workers who might fall; 70 percent of those killed in building accidents fall from heights.

Although six months have passed – twice as long as what was agreed – it will be many more months before the recommendations are submitted. Members of the steering committee are in dispute over defining which sites should be required to have this netting, the frequency of inspection and what kind of craftsman are needed. The Labor Ministry said that not all the issues currently have an Israeli solution and solutions are being sought abroad, “But we are close to finishing the staff work and we’ll present it in the coming months.”

Hotline

A passerby who sees hazardous scaffolding or work being done without safety equipment is at a loss to whom to turn. The agreement calls for establishing phone and internet hotlines to which safety violations can be reported by June 2019. Despite the imminent deadline, don’t expect it to be launched for another few months.

The Labor Ministry said, “The Institute for Occupational Safety and Hygiene, which is subordinate to the labor minister, already has a hotline, and all calls to it are automatically submitted to the safety administration and checked. We are examining the establishment of a hotline that can cope with the scope of potential reports.”

Construction site where a worker was killed in Haifa, April 22, 2019.
Rami Shllush

Safety inspectors

Both parties agreed to advance a bill that will require the appointment of a safety assistant at all large construction sites. The bill passed at the end of last year and the law is meant to go into effect at the end of this month. The problem is that to meet the law’s requirements, some 7,000 accredited safety assistants would have to be at work by the end of the month, while the number available is a few hundred at best.

The courses to train these assistants opened only a few weeks ago at 17 colleges. Sources familiar with the issues claim that contractors didn’t want to send their employees to the courses, because they didn’t want to pay another worker to be responsible for safety. The contractors also note that within weeks they will be de facto scofflaws, because the law is obligating them to do the impossible. The Labor Ministry said, “The law will go into effect as scheduled and the safety administration is preparing for it, with both guidelines for the construction sector and monitoring the scope of the training being done.”

A major problem is the small number of safety inspectors to check construction sites. The Labor Ministry was employing 24 inspectors to supervise 13,000 construction sites. The agreement calls for 60 more inspectors to be hired, and while funding for them was provided by the treasury, only 17 of the jobs have been filled – seven of them only on Thursday. “We are continuing to recruit,” the ministry said.

Safety training

Only laborers from China are required by the Labor Ministry to undergo orderly safety training. Under the agreement, the Labor Ministry is meant to formulate and enforce a requirement that every construction worker undergo safety training. This clause has yet to be implemented, and the proposals being discussed will still not obligate every construction worker to take a course, as the agreement requires.

The safety administration is talking about requiring all the large builders to give safety courses to all its own workers and subcontractors. With regard to Palestinian workers, an idea being discussed with the Civil Administration is to add two new requirements for an Israeli work permit – that the worker define his professional specialization, and that he produce proof that he has undergone safety training. This will pressure Palestinian construction workers to undergo such training, since without it they won’t be allowed to work in Israel.

Building site where a worker was killed in Ramla, April 8, 2019.
David Bacher

Cranes

Several cranes have collapsed here in recent years, and official figures show that 30 percent of the cranes in operation were manufactured 40 to 50 years ago and are considered dangerous. The agreement stipulates that the Labor Ministry would work to regulate the statutory responsibility of all aspects of crane maintenance, conditions, and safety. Nothing like this has been advanced. The number of crane inspectors, however, has increased from six to 13, and some progress has been made toward making crane operators’ licenses harder to forge.

Safety demands of contractors

Two clauses the treasury was responsible for have gone into effect. The first is the introduction of safety specifications in government tenders for construction and infrastructure. Another change, which took effect in February, is that contractors who have committed certain types of safety violations will not be allowed to bid for government contracts.

The contractors’ registry

The agreement calls for an amendment to the Contractors Registrar Law, stating that a contractor on whose site a worker is killed will have his license revoked for 30 days, during which all the contractor’s building sites will be shut down. The bill was drafted but was not advanced because of the election.

Scaffolding

In the original agreement, contractors building structures more than six meters high were to start using new scaffolds that meet European standards within six months, and within 18 months in the case of smaller buildings. However, under pressure from the contractors, the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee eased this requirement, so that only construction projects that reach 30 meters (18 percent of construction sites) would be required to implement the European standard within six months. At sites that are eight to 30 meters high, they can do so within 18 months, while smaller sites were given three years.