Construction Workers in Israel Are Falling Hard Between the Cracks

Many more workers at Israeli building sites getting killed, maimed in falls. Tel Aviv hospital ICU head: ‘The workers are treated almost like raw material, a disposable item.’

A construction worker in Ashkelon, 2014.
Ilan Assayag

The worker from Moldova has been lying in the internal medicine ward at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital for three weeks now.

Todor Budracz fell three meters when working at a construction site in Herzliya. Since then, he has been intubated and kept in an induced coma. His head is swollen, his arms are bandaged. He suffered injury to multiple vital systems, the doctors say.

Budracz belongs to what some doctors, with a note of despair that’s hard to miss, have started to classify as the “falling workers”: construction workers who fall to their death, or sustain serious injury.

Israeli hospitals fielded 570 “falling workers” in 2014, an increase of 20 percent within five years, according to the Trauma and Emergency Medicine National Research Center. Not only has the number of patients increased: so has the gravity of their injuries. About a quarter are classified, on arrival, as badly or mortally wounded.

Foreign worker injuries are triple industry average

Among labor migrants, the rate of injury is almost three times greater than their proportion in the construction market.

Budracz, 32, is married and a father to two daughters, ages three and five. He came from Moldova a year and a half ago, though a manpower company that imports construction labor to Israel. On the afternoon of December 14, he was standing on the first floor of a building under construction on Moshe Dayan Street, trying to guide a cement-pouring “sleeve.” The sleeve swayed, maybe because of the inclement weather, or for some other reason, and knocked Budracz off. He fell, as noted, about three meters. Paramedics gave him first aid and took him to Ichilov.

His friends on the construction site say they underwent the mandatory safety training, including for working on high. “But if you don’t look out for yourself, nobody will do it for you. The responsibility is first and foremost the worker’s,” says Ivan, another worker on the Herzliya site.

“I have been noticing a constant increase in the number of construction workers reaching us after falling from great heights,” says Dr. Esti Dahan, acting manager of the intensive care unit at Ichilov, where Budracz stayed for 10 days before being transferred to the internal medicine department. “These are the invisible workers. Once they were Palestinians, then Turks, Romanians and Chinese, and now we’re seeing not a few from Sudan and Eritrea. I have to wonder if they are professional and experienced.”

Dahan doesn’t believe malevolence is involved, saying she doesn’t believe anybody is suggesting that the employers skimp on safety training to save money. “But the impression is that almost nobody cares about these people,” she says. “They come from the weakest populations, and most likely nobody will sue the responsible parties. The workers are treated almost like raw material, a disposable item.”

No rehab for foreign workers

Initial medical care, which can take a long time, is the same for Israeli and foreign workers, Dahan says. “The differences begin to show up at the stage of rehabilitation. Foreign workers don’t go to [famed rehab center] Beit Levinstein. Once their condition stabilizes, they’ll be put onto a plane and sent home.” Lacking rehab facilities in their home countries, many of them will quickly die, Dahan says.

Safety training provided by the builder is mandatory, says Ilan Shenkar of the Histadrut. The site manager is also responsible for worker safety. But enforcement is spotty. According to a report published in Haaretz, each inspector is responsible for 700 construction sites, and about half of all sites aren’t inspected at all, a rate that’s been growing with time. The data on work accidents is also thin.

There is no entity responsible for maintaining data on work accidents in the building industry, says a representative of the Research and Information Center at the Knesset, who wrote a long report on the subject. The report found that 26 construction workers died in Israel in 2015 (from January 1 to December 9); since then six more have died.

Those statistics probably are lower than the true number of dead.

Other data prepared at the behest of Haaretz by the Trauma and Emergency Medicine National Research Center supply another dimension to the problem: the danger of falling from heights. Ranging over the last five years, the statistics show the number of injured construction workers hospitalized at 18 Israeli hospitals after falling more than two meters at work.

From 2010 to 2013, that number climbed from 478 to 616, then fell back to 569 in 2014. Statistics for last year haven’t yet been compiled.

About a quarter of the injuries were considered grave or mortal; the number of injuries in that category increased by 40 percent in the last five years.

Trauma researcher: 'This trend has to stop'

Prof. Kobi Peleg, the Center’s chief, feels the climb in the number and severity of the injuries is remarkable. “This trend has to stop,” Peleg says, adding that more and more people are being killed by the month.

About 40 percent of the construction workers hospitalized in the last five years were Jews; 38 percent were Israeli Arabs; 11 percent Palestinians living in the territories; and 8 percent were foreign workers. About a quarter fell more than five meters.

Based on last summer’s data from the Research and Information Center at the Knesset, the Israeli construction industry has 235,000 employees, of whom 7,000 are foreign workers. Thus, the proportion of injuries among foreign workers is about three times higher than among construction workers as a whole.

“The reports to the Safety Board at the [Economy] Ministry about non-fatal accidents do not encompass all work accidents, but the reporting about fatal accidents is complete,” the Economy Ministry said. There have been requests for information about non-fatal labor accidents of late, including the names of casualties and their employers, the ministry added. “The issue has been studied from the legal perspective, because of the need to maintain quality investigation on the issue. The Safety Board wants disclosure of the information, and believes it can help avert construction accidents in the future.”