The Israeli Labor Ministry shut close to 3,000 construction sites in 2020, or nearly eight a day, citing life-threatening safety violations, nearly doubling the number shut down a year beforehand.
A report by the ministry’s Occupational Safety Administration finds the number of safety warnings more than doubled, from 2,501 in 2019 to 5,532 in 2020, apparently due to an increase in inspections of construction sites which rose by 47 percent, from 8,331 on-site inspections in 2019 to 12,250 in 2020.
The ministry also notes a drop in fatalities from construction site accidents, but does not mention a general reduction in economic activity last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The report says that in 2020, 57 people died in work accidents in all sectors of the economy, compared to 84 in 2019, a drop of 32 percent. In the construction sector there were 31 deaths, compared to 40 the previous year, or a 22 percent decline. The ministry claimed this drop was meaningful because “construction activity during the coronavirus closures and in general was identical to that of 2019.”
But the Central Bureau of Statistics reports that building starts were down 9.5 percent in 2020, even though construction was permitted during all the lockdown periods. The Bank of Israel says tens of thousands fewer Palestinian laborers worked at Israeli construction sites last year.
Reports compiled by organizations dealing with the rights and safety of workers paint a different picture than the ministry’s statistics. The Group Against Construction and Industrial Accidents said that in 2020, 69 workers were killed in work accidents, including 33 in the building trades, compared to 91 deaths in 2019, 44 of them in the construction industry.
The gap stems from the fact that the Labor Ministry does not include accidents in the West Bank in its figures, or accidents in which workers were struck by a vehicle. A report by the Kav LaOved association says that in 2020 there were 20 percent more work accident injuries despite the marked economic slowdown.
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The director of the organization against work accidents, Hadas Tagari, said that the drop in deaths does not necessarily mean there was any significant improvement in worker safety. She says the statistic that could demonstrate this improvement would be the ratio of deaths per 100,000 workers, but the ministry did not include such information in its report.
“Even in the construction sector, which was not subject to lockdowns, there was a significant drop in the scope of worker participation and the scope of building starts,” Tagari said. “A major contributing factor was the absence of Palestinian workers, the result of various obstacles related to the coronavirus pandemic.”
The ministry report says a total of 2,977 building sites were shut for life-threatening violations in 2020, compared to 1,635 in 2019. The head of the Occupational Safety Administration, Chezy Schwartman, said, “hard work brings results. Our activity in the field contributed to preventing accidents and achieving great deterrence in all the employment sectors in Israel.”
Kav LaOved said that even in 2020 the ministry barely imposed sanctions on contractors for violating safety laws. While more than 40 contracting companies racked up more than 10 safety violation orders, only three were summoned to hearings by the Contractors Registrar’s Office.
Nine of these companies still appear on a database list of recognized contractors eligible to bid on government projects. The safety administration imposed fewer than 100 fines for safety violations at building sites, the group said.
The Group Against Construction and Industrial Accidents said that while the government report cites “unprecedented progress” in legislation on issues relating to workplace safety, critical regulations to ensure this were not implemented last year. For example, there are still no regulations making developers and senior executives responsible for workplace safety.
The ministry has also failed to create a national authority for worker safety, as recommended by a reservist general, Udi Adam, who headed a panel that investigated the issue in 2014.