Half of the fatalities in workplace accidents in Israel are construction workers. In the past decade there were around 325 such deaths, in addition to some 10,000 people with serious injuries. These figures have long been known in the relevant ministries, above all the Economy Ministry, which is responsible for worker safety. But no economy minister in recent years has treated the matter as a multiple system failure requiring “comprehensive system reorganization,” as the state comptroller put it in his scathing recent report. This is not just negligence, but rather turning a criminally blind eye.
The cause of Monday’s fatal collapse of the parking garage in Ramat Hahayal is still uncertain: a design/engineering failure, poor implementation, noncompliance with safety procedures or a combination of factors. Nevertheless, the incident underlines the heavy price paid by construction workers in Israel for irresponsibility in this area. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the origin of the workers, most of whom are non-Jews, saps the motivation to fight the phenomenon. Three-quarters of the workers killed on construction sites in the past five year were Palestinians, Israeli Arabs or foreign nationals. According to data collected by the Coalition against Construction Accidents, almost 90 percent of such fatalities in the first half of 2016 were non-Jews.
The Safety and Occupational Health Administration (which recently migrated from the Economy Ministry to the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry) employs 18 inspectors, sharing just five vehicles, for some 13,000 construction sites. Despite significant growth in construction, new positions have not been added. “The agency did not meet its basic purpose, inspection and enforcement, to ensure employers take the necessary action for maximum protection of worker safety,” the comptroller wrote.
Poor inspection is only one link in a chain of failures that includes incomplete investigations by the police and the administration of fatal accidents, a paucity of prosecutions for negligent manslaughter, and relatively light punishments together with the limited imposition of administrative fines on construction companies.
The fact that over the past decade, not one contractor who had workers killed or injured on the job had his license suspended shows the extent of the government’s weakness in dealing with the problem.
In 2014 an advisory committee to then-Economy Minister Naftali Bennett recommended the legal, economic and educational overhaul of the worker safety system. Bennett and his successors (including, for about 10 months, Benjamin Netanyahu), barely progressed in implementing the recommendations. The disaster at Ramat Hahayal proves how critical it is for the authorities to change the norms governing safety in the construction industry.