Despite Wave of Fatal Building Accidents in Israel, Safety Is Rarely Enforced

Housing Ministry fails to impose serious sanctions despite 100 deaths since 2016

Police officers at the Netanya construction site where a 37-year-old worker fell to his death, March 29, 2016.
Tomer Appelbaum

With the continued lawlessness in Israel’s construction industry and absence of adequate enforcement, some 100 workers have been killed at building sites since 2016 and more than 1,800 safety orders have been issued by the Labor and Welfare Ministry. Yet Ilan Eliahu, the registrar for contractors, has held hearings in just a handful of cases and has not imposed serious sanctions on any company.

The figures, which were provided at the request of TheMarker from the Housing and Construction Ministry, reveal the main problem facing Israel’s accident-prone industry: The contractors’ registrar, which has the power to enforce safety issues by among other things issuing work permits, isn’t dong its job.

No builder is paying the price for its safety failures by having its classification lowered or its license revoked. In the case of a contractor who is a serial violator, the registrar can even impose financial penalties.

“This is grossly negligent, as [the registrar] has the legal authority to act to revoke licenses and to reduce the classification of contractors,” said Reuven Ben-Shimon, who founded the Forum of the Prevention of Workplace Accidents. “Contractors’ profits appear to get priority over the public’s interest and speeding up the pace of construction is more important than the blood of workers who fall to their death.”

Contractors are classified by the size of a project that can undertake in money terms. Today there are five tiers and moving a company up or down one can significantly affect its operations, but the contractors’ registrar hasn’t exercise its authority over the years, never acting to change a builder’s classification.

Yet in spite of these enforcement powers, the Housing Ministry officials say they can’t think of a single instance when they are imposed. In the case of a workplace accident, it can’t act until a criminal case has been adjudicated, they say.

The Housing Ministry attributes the failure to a lack of information in the safety orders relayed to it from the Labor Ministry in the aftermath of a workplace accident. Without it, officials say, they haven’t been able to act, although they promise that the situation is getting better.

“For years the matter was ignored, but the contractors’ registrar is now examining all of the safety orders and is assembling the evidence to take enforcement action in instances where it has the authority,” said one official, who asked not to be named.

“The Housing Ministry has begun to cooperate more closely, but unfortunately the orders that we’re getting even today don’t contain enough information for the registrar to act. For instance, we get orders without enough evidentiary information or orders that are incomplete,” he said.

In a recent report by the state comptroller, investigators found that Eliahu treated unregistered contractors with a degree of leniency that was tantamount to a failure to enforce the law.

For example, between 2013 and 2016, only 30 orders were issued against unregistered contractors, even though estimates are that there are 20,000 of them in Israel. “[Eliahu’s] activity was extremely poor, to the point of inaction,” wrote State Comptroller Joseph Shapira.

Although the issue of building safety has been in the headlines for the past year and a number of steps have been taken to increase supervision in the industry, even in cases of severe accidents construction sites are closed for just 48 hours and fines are small.

The Housing Ministry says that the last time the contractors’ registrar issued a ruling after opening up a legal procedure was in 2014. However, in a letter in February to the building industry, Eliahu hinted that he would begin taking a tougher line.

“Observing all safety rules on construction sites is of the utmost importance. Be aware that the Registrar of Contractors cooperates with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at the Ministry of Labor and may take disciplinary measures against a contractor who does not observe the safety rules, to the point that the contractor’s license is rescinded,” the letter said.

The registrar isn’t the only one who hasn’t acted. A study by the Knesset Research and Information Center found that between 2010 and 2016, 148 cases were opened in connection with construction-site accidents, but as of last August nearly 65% of them had been closed. Another 5.4% were still under investigation and in just 18.2% of the cases was a decision made to file an indictment.