Ministries, Experts Clash Over How to Deal With Numbers of Deaths on Building Sites

Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz believes treasury should pay more to inspectors but that there’s no need to increase their number; experts within his ministry beg to differ

Or Kashti
Lee Yaron
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A construction site in Kiryat Gat, southern Israel.
A construction site in Kiryat Gat, southern Israel. Credit: Ilan Assayag
Or Kashti
Lee Yaron

Attempts to introduce new reforms to cut the number of workers’ deaths on construction sites are being stymied by Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz, who refuses to accept that more building site inspectors must be hired.

Low wages are also making it difficult to hire inspectors to fill the existing vacant positions, with Katz blaming the Finance Ministry for its parsimonious salaries.

Forty construction workers died in Israel between January and October last year, but the number of construction site inspectors is only one-third the minimum requirement for countries belonging to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Katz, who took over responsibility for fighting building-site accidents from the Economy Ministry when the latter ministry was dismantled last year, says there are enough inspectors right now. That number stands at 17.

The Occupational Safety Administration – the main agency responsible for inspection and enforcement – has 20 positions for inspectors that have gone unfilled for months because of poor wages and conditions.

“The Finance Ministry is responsible. It expects an engineer to come after studying for four years and starting out at 4,500 shekels ($1,170) [a month], knowing the wages will never be more than 6,000 shekels?” said Katz. “It’s hard to understand how the treasury expects an engineer to work for such pay. Maybe they don’t care that laborers are falling from roofs.”

Last week, Katz met with safety inspectors, who had announced last month that they were restricting their workload in protest at the low pay and poor conditions.

Katz supported the sanctions: “They don’t have to work hours they’re not paid for. And if they don’t give them vehicles, they shouldn’t go to the building sites.” He blamed his predecessors for not making headway on the matter.

Katz has said over the past few weeks that more positions for inspectors are not needed, based on the assumption that when contractors can be personally fined for infractions, “The punishment for every infraction will be 35,000 shekels – and if there are 10 infractions, the fine will be 350,000 shekels a day. Let’s see what happens the day after,” he said.

But in addition to going against OECD statistics, the minister’s position goes against that of experts in his own ministry.

“We are very much in favor of financial sanctions, but from what we have learned I think we need more than 60 additional inspectors,” said Varda Edwards, head of the Safety Administration. “If in another year we don’t have the positions we need, I don’t know how we’ll implement the amendment to the law on personal fines – because there won’t be enough people to apply it,” she added.

Katz also has a plan to use drones to photograph building sites. But that might not go through, according to Edwards, because the Safety Administration is not currently allowed to use photographs that come from the NGO umbrella group Coalition against Building-Site Accidents, or other complainants. Instead, the Safety Administration has to come to the site and take its own photos. “The rules have changed. Even in soccer they use cameras,” Katz said, stating that this problem can be solved.

Additionally, the umbrella group says the fact that the various units have not completed the move from the Economy Ministry to the Social Affairs Ministry is complicating inspections.

The changes that allow for fines against contractors for noncompliance with safety codes were sent to the Justice Ministry for review about a month ago. Various officials have criticized the plan because it allows for appeals and long delays.

“It takes a few months to prepare just one file because employers block the process. The Safety Administration can’t deal with this difficulty with the means now at its disposal,” an official familiar with the details said.

Meanwhile, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation is to vote today on a bill, proposed by MK Eyal Ben-Reuven (Zionist Union), to require the installation of wind-measuring equipment on all tower cranes. Nine cranes collapsed between February 2015 and December 2016 as a result of strong winds and safety failures.

However, sources close to Ben-Reuven said that they do not believe the bill will pass due to disagreement over it and for political reasons..