Workplace Accidents Growing in Israel, but State Spending Less to Prevent Them

40 Israelis died in the first half of 2014, with construction sites most perilous places to work.

Eyal Toueg

September 8 was a bad day for Israeli workers. Three serious workplace accidents happened that day in different places: A worker at an archaeological site in Jerusalem died after he slipped and fell 10 meters. Another worker, working alone overnight in an industrial plant in Ashkelon, died from a loss of blood after his hand became caught in machinery. In the third case, an Ashdod forklift operator was injured when his vehicle flipped over for reasons unknown.

Economy Ministry figures show a gradual rise in workplace accidents. Sixty-two people were killed on the job in 2013, up from 60 in 2012 but down from 64 in 2011. Nevertheless, the long-term trend is still a clear.

With 40 people dying in workplace accidents in the first six months of 2014, Varda Edwards – head of the Economy Ministry’s Israel Institute for Occupational Safety and Hygiene – fears that the full-year numbers will be higher than ever.

Construction sites are the most dangerous places to work, accounting for about half of all fatal accidents and over half the injuries. In 2013, the death rate was 12.6 per 100,000 workers, more than triple the rate of 4 per 100,000 in industry at large.

An April report on occupational safety and hygiene conditions completed by the Adam Committee (headed by the chairman of Israel Military Industries, Maj. Gen. (res.) Udi Adam), estimated that the economy loses almost 2.5 million work days a year because of industrial accidents and occupational illnesses.

In light of the high cost of workplace accidents, the report – which was presented to Economy Minister Naftali Bennett – concluded that the government spends too little in preventing them. All told, the government spends 85 million shekels ($23.3 million) to support bodies dealing with the issue and funding.

Spending on occupation safety has dropped 47% according to the report, to an amount equal to less than 1% of its costs to the economy.

Officials in the Economy Ministry estimate the real cost of such accidents and illnesses to be even higher, because the committee’s figures didn’t take into account such factors as the financial and mental costs of dealing with the injury, damage to equipment and lower productivity. The true figure is, at the very least, closer to 15 billion shekels a year, they say.

Avigail, 48, was a respected physics teacher when, two years ago, she suddenly went hoarse. “It happened out of the blue, without any warning,” she says. “True, before that there were a few weeks of hard work teaching, but I didn’t make a big deal out of it because I loved my work. But I came to class and couldn’t say a word. The doctors determined that I couldn’t go back to teaching.”

The National Insurance Institute set Avigail’s disability at the 10% level and gave her a one-time payment of 30,000 shekels. In addition, she turned to her pension fund, which approved a disability pension of 7,500 shekels a month.

But there are those who are forced to make do with much less. Gavriel, 35, has worked in a kibbutz-owned plastics factory for many years. He was hurt earlier this year when his cutting machine generated sparks and injured two of his fingers. It seems the machine was not working properly.

Gavriel says he’d needed to stay late on the production line one evening when the machine started shaking and he felt a sharp pain.

“I had no idea where the first aid kit was. But no one in the noisy factory heard my screams,” he recalls. “Eventually, after a long time and after I tried to stop the bleeding, a colleague came by and took care of sending me to hospital, where I was hospitalized for a few days.

“Since then I haven’t been able to engage in any physical labor,” he continues. “I work in the kibbutz offices at a lower salary. The NII didn’t provide help: They gave me 7% disability, which doesn’t provide any monthly disability allowance.”

Inadequate tools

Edwards admits the tools IIOSH has at its disposal are inadequate to deal properly with workplace accidents. “Compared to the hundreds of workers employed in supervising wages, we have only 70 field personnel in total, whose job is to visit workplaces all over the country and examine their safety conditions,” she says.

Additionally, it’s hard finding appropriate candidates to become safety inspectors, because they must have an engineering degree. Edwards says the work is hard and there are often conflicts with business owners, who sometimes throw inspectors out of their factories. And at 9,000 to 10,000 shekels a month, salaries aren’t high and inspectors aren’t provided with a car, even though the job requires constant travelling. In the private sector, these engineers can make 16,000 shekels or more, she says.

The most dangerous industry of all is the manufacturing and processing of synthetic countertops, which creates dust that contains silica. Without proper ventilation and removal of the dust, it is very hazardous. There are some 500 such workshops in Israel, which together employ 3,000 people. Moreover, some are very near residential areas and operate without licenses, while some are not registered at all.

“The situation is very bad. When one of our inspectors arrives, the owner is angry and threatens him – or sometimes instead begs and pleads to be left alone, and promises to fix the production faults that endanger workers,” says Edwards.

The process of closing violators down is complicated and is supposed to be done in cooperation with the local authority. “So far we have closed less than 10 workshops that do not meet safety standards,” she says. IIOSH is also initiating a new law to allow it to fine employers who violate safety regulations, similar to cases of violating wage laws. “Maybe it will help,” Edwards says.

Office workers have health and safety issues, too, but very few people think about the problems that affect white-collar workers. “Sitting for long periods in front of a computer at the wrong angle and the wrong distance from the screen can cause damage, especially to the eyes, hands and arms, and the back,” Edwards says. “But these problems are solvable: I recommend the worker makes sure they have a comfortable chair and, no less important, not sit for too long at a time in front of the computer without moving, but to do some exercises and stretches a few times a day.”