Israeli Construction Deaths Rose Some 40 Percent in 2016

More than 6,000 builders injured on job. Foreign and Palestinian workers are under-reported.

A worker at a construction site in Kiryat Malakhi, January 5, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

In 2016, a construction worker was killed almost every week; a dramatic rise of about 40 percent in the number of such deaths compared to 2015 (48 and 34 deaths, respectively). In addition, between 6,000 and 7,000 construction workers were recognized by the National Insurance Institute as having suffered construction work accidents. This is a partial figure because injuries to foreign and Palestinian workers are under-reported.

The figures the Occupational Safety and Hygiene Administration in the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry has are even lower. This information fog is not an accident, but reflects the overall policy that attaches little importance to the fight against construction industry accidents, similar to the miniscule number of safety inspectors the Safety Administration employs, as well as conditions and enforcement powers those inspectors have.

Some of this fog can be dispersed through the use of work safety orders, which are issued by the inspectors to building sites in cases of serious safety violations. Last year the ministry issued 927 safety orders, according to figures obtained by Haaretz. But recently the Labor Ministry rejected, through the legal department of the Economy Ministry, a request to publish them filed by the Public Knowledge Workshop (Hasadna). The ministry justified this rejection by saying it required the consent of building contractors to publish the information. The Labor Ministry gave preference to the interests of the construction companies over the public interest, said attorney Hadas Tagari, the head of the Coalition Against Construction Accidents.

The work safety orders are considered to be one of the main tools available for the safety inspectors, and are issued in cases of serious violations, such as those that cannot be corrected in a short period of time and require a second inspection after things are fixed. These include a wide range of problems, such as a construction crane operating without its periodic inspection, or one operated by a person without the appropriate training and license; scaffolding that does not meet the legal requirements; no fences around excavations, at the end of open balconies, etc; working at heights without safety harnesses, and more. Based on the severity, the issuance of a safety order requires halting work at the construction, partially or in full. Out of the 927 orders issued last year, 96 involved a complete shutdown of the site.

Varda Edwards, head of the Safety Administration, says construction companies do not always follow the orders precisely. Whoever thinks they can get away with it does not carry out the order, she said in an interview with Haaretz. Those who violate the orders are subjected to a criminal investigation, “but we have only nine investigators, who open an investigation only when there are serious violations. We must choose. An investigation takes a lot of time and energy, and the tendency is to file an indictment only when there is clear information. It is a long and exhausting process, and the punishment in the end is effective,” she said.

In 2016, 55 such investigations were opened, about half of which have been completed and were handed over to the Economy Ministry’s legal department for further handling.

Given the partial enforcement and punishment, the Coalition Against Construction Accidents has asked the ministries involved to release the safety orders issued over the past five years. If the government’s handling of the problem is faulty, at least there should be public oversight, they say.

In October 2016, Hasadna requested, on behalf of the Coalition, to receive this information, including details of the type of safety order issued, the precise address and construction company, under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Law. The goal was to try to identify dangerous patterns of operation by the companies; in other words construction sites or companies that are serial offenders. “We know the public interest has contributed a lot in the past year to the fight against construction accidents. Such publication could create more public pressure,” said a person with knowledge of the details involved.

“Issuing an order testifies to the dangerousness of the site, or part of it, for workers, and about the negligent and dangerous actions of the company operating the site,” says Tagari.

The Safety Administration may have moved from the Economy Ministry to the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry four months ago, but the legal aspects of its operations are still handled in the Economy Ministry. The Safety Administration did not object to publishing the safety orders, but the ministry’s lawyers did, said the source. Three weeks ago the request for the information was officially rejected. The ministry said in its letter rejecting the request that is must ask every company that received such an order whether they objected to releasing it, which was too great a burden given there were 5,000 such orders issued. Even releasing the some 80 safety orders issued in one month was impossible because it required “an unreasonable allocation of resources.”

The Economy Ministry promised in its response to the information request that from now on it will release the orders with the “goal of aiding in enforcing the safety laws, with transparency for the benefit of the public disclosure of those companies that are violating [the law].” But the ministry said it will release the information “from time to time,” without providing any further details. A notice will be added to the orders informing the companies the information will be published on the ministry’s website.

“The contractors are living in a bubble, and it is convenient for the Economy Ministry too,” said the source. As long as there is no public pressure, in part based on a constant tracking of safety violations, it will continue to be “business as usual,” he added. But even publishing the information in the future will not help for now in identifying the dangerous companies, because we will have to wait a long time, maybe even a few years, until enough information accumulates, he said.

The Labor and Social Affairs Ministry said the Safety Administration is aware of the importance of the information and its accessibility to the public, therefore starting this year it will publish the safety orders issued, in accordance with the rules of proper administration. As to the request that was submitted, it was examined, among other things, according to the section requiring in a case concerning a third party, receiving its approval to delivering the requested information. Therefore, the request was rejected because it required an exceptional allocation of resources.”