Building Mishaps in Israel Rise Amid Legal Vacuum

Few inspectors are employed to watch sites, supervision is disjointed and liability lies with the onsite work manager, who is usually responsible for several sites simultaneously

Aerial view of the building collapse at Tel Aviv construction site that injured at least 18 people with at least half a dozen other victims feared trapped in rubble on September 5, 2016.
Courtesy of Israel Police

An investigation into the cause of Monday’s deadly collapse of a multistory parking garage under construction in north Tel Aviv is just getting underway. But it will almost certainly reach the same conclusions as previous probes into construction accidents — the absence of legal responsibility by the contractor for the quality of construction and level of safety at his building site.

The responsibility for accidents at building sites like Monday’s in Ramat Hahayal, which has so far left two dead and 23 injured, lies almost entirely with the site’s work manager.

The manager is typically a paid employee of the building company and subordinate to its managers, rules and budgets. However, in most of the indictments that have been filed for negligence at construction sites, it is the manager who has been targeted.

“The work manager, who doesn’t earn a lot, is the weak party in all this. He can’t bang on the CEO’s table and demand more safety resources or he’ll give back the keys,” said Jonathan Aronson, an expert in commercial and corporate law. “In addition, the work manager is usually responsible for several building sites at the same time — he can’t be at any one site all the time.”

After the collapse of a balcony at a Gindi Investments apartment tower under construction in Hadera in December 2013, critics railed against the way building sites are managed. They called for sites to be monitored by outside managers, but the proposals weren’t adopted, possibly because it would add to costs.

Shai Pozner, an official at the Israel Builders Association, said the problem of responsibility on building sites is made even more complicated by the sophistication of modern construction, which involves a host of different skills and professions.

“Between 20 and 40 businesses are involved in every [big] building under construction,” he said. “Each one of them has its own workers, even though only one person is in charge of safety at the site — the work manager. Moreover, there’s a shortage of work managers — a problem that is only going to grow worse over the coming years because a large number of the existing ones are due to retire,” he told the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee in February.

Engineers Association Chairman Danny Meron said the situation in Israel makes no sense. “In every area of engineering, you have quality control which is usually the responsibility of the company making the product. Ensuring quality, the second circle of control, is usually done by outsiders. But in Israel, the law doesn’t call for that,” he said.

Data on building accidents illustrate the depth of the problem. Half of all fatal workplace accidents occur at construction sites. Since 2009, the number of construction-related death has climbed 40% — about in line with the increase in building.

In recent years, between 26 and 36 people have been killed annually, but this year the rate seems to have grown sharply: In the first eight months, the number of deaths already reached 34. Yesterday’s confirmed deaths brings the total to 36.

The Economy and Industry Ministry is responsible for monitoring safety at construction sites, but it employs just 17 people to look after an estimated 13,000 building sites across the country. The inspectors have just five cars at their disposal.

The police, who are also supposed to take responsibility for safety, don’t employ any officers with industry expertise and don’t have the tools to conduct professional investigations into safety violation at construction sites.

At the prosecution level, a similar absence of professional expertise in construction is another problem — even though the government frequently indicts violators.

The registrar of contractors is responsible for issuing construction licenses, but he answers to the Housing and Construction Ministry, while safety supervisors answer to the Economy and Industry Ministry.

Registrar Amnon Cohen told the Knesset panel in February that the two sides did not share information with one another until four years ago, so the registrar had no way of knowing if he was renewing licenses for serial safety offenders.

A draft law approved two months ago would require that building sites where a work accident caused death, or a serious injury occurred, automatically be shut for two days. If an inspector discovered serious safety violations, he would then be authorized to shut it for an additional three days, subject to a hearing. But that remains to be legislated.