Israel Approves On-the-spot Fines for Safety Flaws at Building Sites

But lack of inspectors means new penalties may have little effect on curbing construction accidents

A laborer working at a construction site in the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, February 2017.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

The Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee on Wednesday approved a rule that allows building contractors to be fined up to 35,280 shekels (over $9,900) for violating safety regulations at their construction sites. The new rule goes into effect in January.

This was a major step being promoted by Labor Minister Haim Katz to contend with work accidents. Building inspectors will be authorized to issue the fines on the spot, with no need for a bureaucratic procedure. If the CEO of a company doesn’t act to correct the violations, the inspector can issue him a personal fine of up to 9,000 shekels.

The Builders Association and the government’s housing cabinet lobbied hard against the move. “There are contractors who don’t earn the sums of these sanctions in a month,” the association’s deputy director Amir Heller told the MKs during Wednesday’s hearing. “Managing a building site is complicated. You have to give warnings first, not go straight to the guillotine. This could harm the workers themselves, because they’ll lose their jobs.”

But committee chairman MK Eli Alalouf (Kulanu) retorted, “You can’t keep on looking for excuses for not observing the regulations. There’s a way to totally avoid these fines and that’s by carefully observing the law and safety regulations.”

The effectiveness of the fines will be limited, however, so long as the impossible pressure on building inspectors continues. There are only 19 construction site inspectors, and sometimes one inspector is responsible for hundreds of sites, meaning that they never even visit many of them.

“We are working with the treasury and the Civil Service Commission to improve the inspectors’ employment conditions,” said Katz. “There are 22 positions and no one is applying because an engineer isn’t prepared to work for 5,000 shekels [a month]. The treasury has to understand that an engineer won’t work for the minimum wage.”

Michal Tadjer, a lawyer with the Worker’s Hotline, expressed dismay that although the money from the fines will go to the state’s coffers, the treasury didn’t seem willing to give the Occupational Health and Safety Administration any additional resources to hire more inspectors.

Builders Association director Eliav Ben Shimon said, “Imposing sanctions and fines isn’t a solution to accidents. To understand the degree that today’s Knesset decision misses the mark, it’s enough to look at the increasing number of road accidents in Israel, which are directly proportional to the rising road safety fines.

“What will really reduce work accidents in the construction field are a combination of a sharp increase in government expenditure on employee training, a dramatic broadening of site inspections, and eliminating the obstacles to training foremen, of whom we are lacking more than 3,000,” he said.