Building contractors were fined a total of 19 million shekels ($5.4 million) in January, the first month a new ordinance, which stiffens penalties for safety violations at construction sites, went into effect.
Of 700 building sites visited by inspectors, 660 received fines for safety violations. Some of the inspections were random, while others were the result of reports of violations. Since the start of the year, five workers have been killed on construction sites.
The Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry noted that the most common safety violations discovered were scaffolding work without personal protective equipment and work on substandard scaffolding; failure to appoint a job site foreman; failure to instruct employees in working at heights; failure to conduct safety checks and a lack of instruction manuals.
Around 65 percent of the fines issued were for 35,780 shekels each, and the remainder were for 20,220 shekels.
The ordinance that went into effect on January 1 permits fines of up to 35,000 shekels for each safety violation, but also allows for a decrease in the amount if the violations are corrected. In addition, fines can be reduced by up to 40 percent on appeal.
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Approval was given for a period of six months, at the end of which the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee is to revisit the issue in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the ordinance. The pilot program is the main measure taken by Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Haim Katz to combat the rash of fatal workplace accidents in Israel.
Contractors have the right to appeal the amount of the fine and to have it reduced by up to 40 percent if the contractor did not violate any safety directives in the past five years or if the company corrected the problem on its own initiative before being contacted by a safety inspector. In addition, the chief inspector has the authority to reduce the fine by 25 percent if the contractor has fewer than 10 employees and has “difficult personal circumstances.”
The fine can be cut by 20 percent if the contractor took action to prevent the recurrence of the violation and to minimize the harm it caused. Also, the total fine cannot exceed 2.5 percent of turnover of a contractor whose turnover does not exceed 10 million shekels, or 4.5 percent of a contractor whose business volume exceeds that amount.
Contractors caught committing certain safety violations for the first time are not to be fined, but rather given a warning. These include significant hazards to worker safety, especially in regard to work at heights, such as faults in the erection of scaffolding, failure to provide safety equipment for work at heights (including personal protective equipment), failure to install means to prevent falls and employing teenagers for work at heights.
“There is disinformation and deception of the public and the media,” said Reuven Ben-Shimon, the founder of the Forum against Work Accidents. “In practice, there’s an internal protocol in the Labor Ministry that was recently approved by the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee that allows contractors to get ‘discounts’ on violating safety regulations ‘for the first time,’ so that in practice the total amount of the fines will be significantly lower than 19 million shekels,” Ben-Shimon said.
“It would be better for Haim Katz’s office to go back to issuing fines according to the original plan, without the possibility of reducing the fines and giving ‘discounts’ — just as a drunk driver doesn’t get a warning for driving drunk the first time. The blood of construction workers is not worth any less than the blood of other Israelis,” Ben-Shimon said.
“Legislating and enforcing the regulations are a positive step that has deterrent potential, and the amounts cited do not reflect the amount of the fines that will be imposed at the end of the day, which are subject to big reductions according to the procedure declared by the labor minister, and even after the fines are issued, it’s unclear how much will be collected, as can be seen from the experience with levying sanctions over the violation of workers’ social rights,” said Hadas Tagari, the director of the coalition for preventing construction accidents. She added that her organization is disturbed by the failure to hire more inspectors.
“If the same 22 safety inspectors run around 700 building sites to write up violations, it’s clear they don’t have the time to visit sites, order the suspension of dangerous work and issue safety orders,” Tagari added.