Israeli Government Indifferent as Crane Operators Use Fake Licenses

Only 36 indictments have been filed for construction safety issues over the past three years.

The site of a collapsed construction crane in Ramat Gan, March 19, 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

After a crane collapsed at a construction site in Ramat Gan on Sunday, the municipality decided to conduct a quick examination of the construction sites in the city where cranes are in use. Within hours they found four sites operating cranes without the required permits. This is not unusual in Israeli construction.

Of the 2,700 crane operators in Israel today, at least 20 percent (over 540) are estimated to be working with fake operators’ licenses. The fake licenses are simply a piece of paper that is easily forged with a computer and printer – or by paying 300 to 500 shekels to a forger. The result is that people with no experience or training can operate cranes without a license and endanger peoples’ lives.

Haaretz has obtained correspondence and photographs which show how the Transportation Ministry has, for five years, been delaying the issuing of licenses that would help prevent forgeries. The ministry has been trying to transfer responsibility for licensing to the Labor Ministry. However, Social Affairs and Labor Minister Haim Katz has refused to accept responsibility for this area. Over the five years the issue has been under debate, some 2,500 crane operators licenses have been forged, according to estimates from the Israeli association of tower crane operators.

In 2012, the Transportation Ministry began handling the matter after it realized that the serious shortage of construction workers had led to the development of a black market in forged professional accreditations. In 2013, the ministry completed the preparation of a new version of the license which includes a magnetic strip, similar to that of a driver’s license, which is hard to forge. At the end of 2013 the ministry even asked crane operators for permission to use their pictures in their database for printing the new licenses. But in the four years since then nothing has changed in practice.

This is scandalous behavior, negligence on the part of the Transportation Ministry concerning the licenses, Roy Weinstein, the spokesman for the crane operators association, told Haaretz.  “This is shocking indifference. Issuing the licenses requires only a small amount of work from the government ministries but could save lives and prevent the collapse of cranes ... The government is so uninterested in construction workers that it is not willing to even invest in it in order to save lives.” 

The Transportation Ministry did not answer Haaretz’s questions about why there has been no progress in the matter for years.

In 2016, Varda Edwards, the head of the safety administration in the Labor Ministry, agreed to take responsibility for the matter because of the urgency and the foot-dragging of the Transportation Ministry. However when the issue was brought to the labor minister, Haim Katz, he decided not to assume responsibility because the Transportation Ministry had already begun to act on the matter.

Last month, Haim Katz sent a letter to Transport Minister Yisrael Katz demanding his ministry handle the matter, and issue licenses similar to driver’s licenses that would be much harder to forge. In response, Yisrael Katz wrote that he disagreed and handed the problem back to the Labor Ministry, saying that professional licensing was in their sphere of authority.

The Transportation Ministry said the entire issue of crane operators , including the authority over practical licensing tests and the rules for accreditation and supervision, are set in the work safety regulations and are the responsibility of the Social Affairs and Labor Ministry; and the Transportation Ministry is not authorized  to examine the work of licensed crane operators or their hiring. The Transportation Ministry is responsible only for issuing the document to operators after they meet all the requirements of the Labor Ministry.

Builder fined over safety violations

Meanwhile, the Haifa Labor Court has fined a construction company and its executives, who committed violations of workplace safety regulations at a construction site and also violated a stop-work order issued by the safety administration in the Labor Ministry.

Judge Assaf Harel fined the builder, Eden Levona Investments, 265,000 shekels ($73,000). Harel also fined one of the firm’s managers, Yaakov Fadlon, 89,000 shekels. This was an exceptional ruling because often Labor Ministry safety inspectors do not even check whether their orders are being followed, due to a lack of resources. And even in cases where an order is violated and this is known, legal proceedings are rarely taken against the offenders.

Over the past three years, only 36 indictments have been filed in total in the entire construction industry. 

The Occupational Safety and Hygiene Administration in the Labor Ministry conducted an inspection of the company’s construction site in the Givat Olga neighborhood of Hadera in 2013 and found violations of safety and construction regulations. The inspectors issued a stop-work order until the problems were corrected. They later checked to see their orders were being carried out, and found the company had continued construction of a residential building without fixing any of the problems.

Three years later the company and Fadlon were indicted for not appointing a work supervisor, not informing the ministry of the start of construction, not fencing off dangerous areas at the site, using home and not commercial electrical cables, using a broken electrical box, not using helmets, a lack of required training and not informing employees of dangers on the site.