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Israel’s Natural Gas Industry Is Incredibly Safe. The Construction Industry Should Learn From It

Israel managed to build a natural gas drilling platform almost without a hitch. So why are there so many accidents in the construction industry?

Sami Peretz
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File photo: In this undated file photo made available by Albatross Aerial Perspective shows an aerial the Tamar Lease natural gas rig, located 90 kilometers west of the city of Haifa, northern Israel.
File photo: In this undated file photo made available by Albatross Aerial Perspective shows an aerial the Tamar Lease natural gas rig, located 90 kilometers west of the city of Haifa, northern Israel.Credit: AP Photo/Albatross Aerial Perspective, File
Sami Peretz

Erecting the drilling platform at the Tamar natural gas field was considered one of the most complex projects ever undertaken in Israel. Tens of thousands of tons of steel went into building the platform in Texas, and after it was built, it was moved to the coast of Ashkelon.

When it was inaugurated, the project manager gave a presentation packed with data about this complex operation, including the number of sick days workers took due to injuries and the number of accidents that occurred while the platform was being built.

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Only one worker, he said, was absent for a few days due to an injury – and he was burned by an electric blanket in the hotel where he was sleeping. There were no other accidents, even though this was a complex construction project in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, where it would be very easy to slip or bump into a steel barrier in the dark.

The reason for the small number of accidents was a strict safety culture based on rigid work rules, repeated training sessions and the practice of stopping work whenever a problem occurred. Project managers were also rewarded financially for an absence of accidents and injuries. They didn’t see work accidents as a decree of fate, but as something that could be prevented.

This culture seems unimaginably far away from Israel’s construction industry, which has become a death trap for its workers. Every year, dozens of workers die on construction sites because of a criminally lax safety culture.

The lack of safety rules and/or their non-enforcement, contractors’ efforts to save money on safety measures, a culture of amateurism, contempt for human life and the practice of passing the buck – from the construction company to the subcontractor, from there to another contractor and from there to an outside company “whose job it is” – have turned construction sites into a kind of Russian roulette. A worker leaves his house in the morning and doesn’t know whether he’ll return.

The scene of a deadly crane collapse in Yavneh, Israel, May 19, 2019.
The scene of a deadly crane collapse in Yavneh, Israel, May 19, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

It’s easy to accuse the workers of being unprofessional, disregarding safety orders and taking insufficient precautions. But this tendency to think that the worker has an interest in being careful and protecting himself is too generous to the contractors and construction companies. The workers are dependent on one another other, on the professionalism of their superiors and, above all, on the professionalism and safety culture of the construction companies, their executives and their boards of directors.

Yes, being a board member is a job, and its responsibilities include setting the organization’s goals and the ways to achieve them. These goals usually relate to revenues, product lines, profitability, market share, target audiences and appetite for risk. But every business organization must also set high standards for corporate responsibility with regard to labor laws and concern for the environment.

In the case of the construction industry, the most burning need is to set targets for instituting and enforcing safety rules and for safety equipment at a high level. Today, this is at the bottom of the construction companies’ list of priorities. Their managements prefer to hide behind subcontractors and outside bodies that do the work for them.

This practice must be ended. As long as it continues, there will be more horrible construction accidents, as we saw in Yavneh this week. The personal responsibility of the project managers and the company owners who profit from this industry needs to be a precondition for starting construction. One of the complaints we hear almost every day in Israel’s business sector is that “we have too much regulation.” It may be true regarding building permits and plans, but when it comes to safety, it turns out we don’t have enough regulation.

The large number of construction accidents points to a neglected, dangerous industry, in need of immediate, stringent safety regulations - as well as aggressive handling of anyone who violates safety rules and fails to take care of employees. The sanctions need to include a ban on participating in tenders, heavy fines and also criminal indictments - but we also need to compensate the adoption of strict safety standards.

When the state doesn’t make an issue out of construction accidents, doesn’t get upset about the loss of life, doesn’t take action against safety violators and doesn’t encourage those who are stringent about safety, it indicates to the construction industry that it can continue apace. This may be due to who works in the industry — foreign workers, Arabs, and Israeli Jews desperate for income, who are willing to take what they’re given. The state's responsibility is to oversee this wild industry and impose immediate order.