Israeli construction site tragedy renews calls for government to step in

Reactions to the tragedy include calls for stricter safety supervision at construction sites and enforcement of existing laws.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The death of four men and injury of two others at a building site in the central Israeli city of Yavne on Sunday renewed calls for better oversight of the country’s construction industry.

The accident occurred when a building crane’s huge counterweights suddenly detached and crashed while it was being disassembled.Three of the dead were found on the ground, while the crane operator’s body was retrieved from the wreckage.

Police questioned 17 officials involved in the construction of residential buildings at the site. Eventually, 13 were released, but four were put under house arrest with restrictive conditions for five days.

Th latest tragedy brings the number of fatalities in outdoor work accidents this year to 19, with 68 injured, 11 seriously. Most of the workers died from falling from heights, but there were also cases of electrocution from touching unprotected cables and being hit by construction material falling from above, such as metal bars.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan reacted sharply to the news.

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“The work accident in Yavne is shocking and the number of injuries and fatalities at construction sites is inconceivable,” he said. “I have made it clear to the police on several occasions in recent months that I expect the investigation of events to conclude in identifying criminal liability, up to the highest echelons of the construction companies.”

The police can only act after a criminal act has taken place. Even so, very few people have ultimately been held liable for the deaths of construction workers.

Responsibility for the enforcement of worker safety laws lies with the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services. The founder of the Forum for the Prevention of Work Accidents, Reuven Ben Shimon, put the blame on the ministry.

“The situation now is that the contractors are building luxury housing out of workers’ bodies, and the regulator is lending a hand to the continual lawlessness in the construction sector,” he told Globes.

The fact is that there are a few thousand construction sites in Israel with not enough inspectors.

According to the website of Kav La’Oved, an organization dedicated to employees’ rights, “Each year dozens of workers are killed due to unsafe working conditions and no one is held responsible….Government supervision is lacking – an average construction site is visited by an inspector only once every three years!”

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‘Outdated safety standards’

“Many of the safety standards in this sector are outdated, and new ones are hardly ever put into effect,” Kav La’Oved added.

According to the Safety Administration, in the first half of 2018 it made over 900 inspections, giving out more than 1,000 sanctions.  Still, few contractors have actually had their licenses revoked due to their violations.

The Work Accidents Lobby in the Knesset, founded by one member each from the Meretz, Shas, Hadash-Ta’al and Blue and White parties, want meaningful action to be taken.

“Despite the promises that safety rules will be enforced, punishment will be made stricter, and the workers’ safety conditions will be improved, the promises are not being fulfilled, and workers are still being killed,” they said.

“We call on the government to act immediately to enforce stringent safety rules, send inspectors to existing building sites, and halt activity on dangerous sites in order to prevent further deaths and injuries among workers,” the lobby demanded.

In 2018, Israel had double the OECD average number of fatalities in construction, surpassed by only Portugal and Cyprus.