Shmulik Zylberman was 34 years old when the scaffolding elevator on the 10th floor of a building under construction in Netanya detached and tumbled. He was one of 31 people associated with Israel’s building industry who died in 2012.
“All of a sudden, at three in the afternoon on a Sunday, your entire life falls apart,” Hannah Abadi, Shmulik’s sister, recalls. “I was with my husband, buying a safety seat, when he received the phone call. Look at the irony of it.”
“At 3:20,” one of Abadi’s children can be heard saying in the background.
“My kids are correcting me on the details,” says Hannah. “It was a trauma for every single one of us.”
Zylberman was born in Jerusalem, the sixth of eight children. He left behind a wife and six children, the youngest just three months old when their father passed away. Zylberman’s short yet significant life was filled with meaningful achievements. After his studies at Yeshivot Beit El and Horev, he enlisted in the IDF Paratroopers Unit, after which he counseled agricultural enterprises in Samaria. Taking part in the foundation of the Kedumim settlement, Shmulik left behind many family members, friends and co-workers.
“People have to understand that there are lives behind each of these deaths,” Abadi says.
On April 22, 2012, Zylberman – who by then worked as the safety manager on a construction site in Netanya – slipped off the scaffolding elevator that had disconnected on its way down from the 20th floor, falling to his death. He wasn’t wearing a safety belt.
“That’s the reason the entire discussion about safety is so important,” Abadi emphasizes. “A person just needs to ‘go downstairs and get something,’ thinking that nothing will happen to him. He doesn’t believe that in that second that he isn’t attached, something will happen to him.”
“With guidance and more awareness, deaths like that would have been prevented. They take a 20-hour safety course and that’s about it,” she laments.
ISRAEL IS a “leader” in fatalities on construction sites among developed countries. Since 2010, over 300 workers have lost their lives at sites as a result of negligence. Thousands more were injured, many so severely that they are disabled for the rest of their lives. A breakdown by the Labor Ministry in 2016 showed that over half of the fatalities were Palestinian, 36% Israeli, and 12% foreigners.
In 2018, Israel ranked third among OECD countries with more than double the average amount of deaths, surpassed only by Cyprus and Portugal.
As we reach the midpoint of 2019, 23 deaths have already been registered (two this week), with four of them in a tragic crane collapse in Yavne at the end of May.
The vast majority of the deaths – over half – are caused by falling from heights. Other causes include getting struck by objects, the collapsing of cranes or other heavy materials and electrocution.
Two government agencies are at the center of construction oversight, representing a fraction of a thickly woven network of companies, organizations and ministries that are all involved in the creation of housing.
The Contractor’s Registrar is housed within the Construction and Housing Ministry and is responsible for issuing and maintaining – potentially also annulling – permits to contractors. The other agency, the Safety Administration, is part of the Labor Ministry and is in charge of inspecting construction sites to ensure that safety regulations are met.
But the communication between those two agencies and the efficiency within each of them has been inadequate for years, leading to a free-for-all culture in the industry.
Hadas Tagari runs The Struggle Against Construction and Industry Accidents, a group that works on reducing the sky-high numbers of fatalities and injuries in the sector.
“There are many actors involved in this story, and many reasons why the situation is as it is,” Tagari says. “There have been frequent changes to the system, but the job hasn’t been done and the management is really bad.”
The lack of deterrence and government interference is one of the main problems, she believes.
“After accidents, the companies go back to work within a few days. The investigations usually don’t lead anywhere.”
Measures against sites that are found to be lax on safety conditions include completely halting building until the safety shortcomings are fixed, financial sanctions and, in severe cases, the annulment of contractor building permits. Yet, while the Safety Administration issues hundreds of safety orders every year, sanctions have been reported to be ineffective, with an insignificant number of contractors having their licenses confiscated by the Contractor’s Registrar.
SOME 12,000 construction sites are registered at the Labor Ministry, but the number of safety checks shows that even a single inspection per construction site per year is an unrealistic load for the Safety Administration to handle.
In 2015, for example, a Knesset report said 13,225 sites were registered at the Administration, while only 6,401 inspections took place – fewer than half. That trend was consistent in the five years leading up to the report, commissioned by Meretz MK Ilan Gilon, with the highest percentage of inspections reaching up to 62% of building sites in 2014.
The worrying figures expose a longstanding inability by the Safety Administration to handle the workload, indicating that the decentralized distribution of responsibilities plays a significant role in the current mess. While the Contractor’s Registrar and Safety Administration are in charge of overseeing the building sites and implementing measures to protect workers, local authorities decide who and what is being built.
“They [local authorities] are the ones who issue building permits that contractors start operating on,” Tagari notes. “It should be their job as well to ensure that the building site is fit to protect the worker’s safety during operations.” She adds, “There aren’t enough personnel and advisers in the governmental bodies to conduct efficient inspections. They are not effective enough; they don’t have enough authority to implement the decisions.”
AN INQUIRY to the Labor Ministry resulted in the acknowledgment of the severe neglect of safety protocols for years, yet the spokesperson said the body was in the process of correcting this trend. Massive recruitment of inspectors and raises in salaries, stronger cooperation with other governmental bodies and changes in safety order impositions were listed as measures the ministry has undertaken in recent months. How they approach safety protocols, however, remains vague.
“Thousands of inspections” are conducted every year, it said, without giving an exact figure on the frequency in which these sites are checked. They also claimed that visits are prioritized according to the contractor’s history, construction complexity and sanctions history, leading to the assumption that the Safety Administration still does not have fixed guidance about how often each site should be inspected.
Furthermore, while deterrence and inspections are crucial to reducing the rate of death and injury, the Labor Ministry must do more to educate workers about safety and organizing its work structure.
“The experience to get anything done at the Labor Ministry reminds me of Kafka’s novel The Castle,” says contractor E. from the North. “Nobody can answer you. Nobody can tell which documents are needed, who checks them, who requires them and where the documents that were sent can be found.”
Most workers do not receive any training at all, and for the jobs that do require some guidance due to their high responsibility, training is negligent.
“The safety training is a joke, which isn’t surprising at all,” E. explains. “The training basically consists of a group of people watching the guide talk about the crane. Then he invites one or two people to go up the crane. The crane is not even raised to a significant height. The entire thing is to follow a protocol. Then, after a couple of hours, the training is over and you get a certificate.”
It is not surprising, then, that the prevalent feeling among construction workers is one of carelessness and lack of responsibility.
“They don’t care,” says Ibrahim, from Bethlehem, who works on a construction site in Jerusalem. “You need to enter a site wearing a helmet and closed shoes, but many don’t do it.”
He says there actually has been some notable change among contractors, since they get sanctioned. “The contractors care, but the workers don’t do it. When contractors arrive, the workers wear their helmets.”
He also believes increased inspections by the Safety Administration go a long way toward getting workers to comply with protocol: “When they arrive, the workers behave according to instructions.”
Contractor E. agrees.
“It’s a culture that people don’t care about the risks, or that ‘it will be fine,’ or ‘God will help.’ It doesn’t matter how much they are warned of danger; they won’t do anything about it – they won’t wear a safety belt, for example. Not because they forgot or there isn’t anyone to remind them, but because ‘God will help them.’”
ONE EFFORT to change this reality was undertaken by the Israeli Builders Association and the General Labor Union at the end of 2018, when they signed an agreement to sanction workers for not adhering to safety rules.
In early December, Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich slammed that agreement in a Knesset committee meeting about construction site safety, the last to date.
“In my eyes, it’s a hair-raising agreement. After all the meetings we had here, after we pointed out the complete lack of safety protocols, after the lack of sanctions against serial law-breaking contractors, there are no sanctions for entrepreneurs or contractors,” she stated.
Most accidents are evidently not the result of neglecting to wear helmets or closed shoes, but the lack of proper scaffolding, workers without permits who operate cranes and other inadequately trained workers who are responsible for the safety of others. Ironically, one representative admitted that inspectors do not have the authority to implement the sanctions described in the agreement.
“According to this agreement, there is only one group that is supposed to pay the heavy price, which are the workers themselves,” Yacimovich said. “They are supposed to be fined heavily for not wearing helmets, for example. In my eyes, [this is] scandalous.”
Putting the onus of sanctions on the workers appears to be another step in shifting responsibility for a situation nobody wants to manage. The ultimate heavy price is paid by relatives of the hundreds who lost their lives and thousands more who were severely impacted by accidents. This price has become a moral weight on the entire country, as well as a financial one.
By 2016, the money paid out by the National Insurance Institute to families of workers who were injured or died due to work-related accidents reached over NIS 4.5 b. This number grew 23% from five years before and can be expected to continue climbing, as work deaths and accidents continue.
“Construction companies pay civil compensation after agreements with the National Insurance Institute, but it’s the latter who pays for most of the damages,” Tagari explains.
More than 50% of work-related accidents occur within the construction industry, and families and workers affected by construction accidents receive on average 35% higher payments, according to the Labor Ministry. Thus, the heavy price is not only paid by workers and their relatives, but borne by Israeli society as a whole.
WINDS OF change are blowing. The subject of construction accidents has come to the forefront of social justice discussions in recent years. This was evident last month, when four people died in Yavne after a crane collapsed on them, two of them hanging horrifically from the wreckage. The uproar was significant, increasing public focus on the issue.
“Today, people are talking about the incidents, inviting the families, listening to them,” Abadi says, recalling the climate when her brother died. “Back then, I saw a ticker from Ynet that read ‘a construction worker who was cleaning windows fell from the building and died,’ which wasn’t even the correct version of events.”
The 20th Knesset, which was dissolved last December, passed three laws aimed at improving the situation.
Spearheading the legislation was former MK Eyal Ben-Reuven, who is optimistic about change. “People are waking up to what’s going on,” he asserts. “Four years ago, you and I wouldn’t have been speaking about this.”
Ben-Reuven – who served between 2015 and 2019 as No. 24 on the Zionist Union list – did not enter the Knesset with the construction accidents issue on his mind, but he has since made it his mission to bring about the urgently needed improvement.
“There needs to be a change in culture,” he reiterates. “The laws we passed help with deterrence, but there remains more to be done. We want to prevent accidents before they happen.”
In April, immediately after his post in the Knesset ended, he took on the position of chairman of the safety department within the Israeli Builders Association, continuing the fight in a civilian role.
“Government authorities want to help, but their pace is slow,” he states, explaining his motive for “switching sides.”
ONE EXAMPLE of this slow-moving progress is the newly launched Peles Unit for Investigations of Work Accidents, inaugurated in December 2018 as a unit within the Israel Police’s Lahav 433 force.
In the six months since its inception, the unit, which counts some 11 officers, has opened only two investigations – even though more than 20 people have already died in that same period.
Then-MK Eli Alalouf also slammed authorities’ slow pace in the committee meeting last December.
“The police asked, ‘Give us resources to establish a team together with the prosecutor’s office,’” he said. “We gave them the money. Nothing came out of it.”
“NIS 11 million, they asked for,” Alalouf claimed. “They got it. It’s all for the cameras.”
Responding to detailed inquiries regarding their activities, the Peles Unit only said that “over 100 officers have been trained in the field” and that “the unit will focus on the combination of administrative powers and criminal investigations.”
Micky Rosenfeld – the police’s foreign press spokesman – deemed it “not relevant” to respond to questions about the allocation of millions of shekels and the detailed activities of a unit that employs less than a dozen officers.
Ben-Reuven, who served in the IDF for close to 35 years, recounts how, when he was an officer, training accidents abounded in the army.
“Our then-defense minister [Yitzhak] Rabin was furious,” Ben-Reuven recounts. “He said, ‘I will not have my soldiers die when not in a war.’” What followed was sweeping reform in the way the units were organized. Roles became defined, responsibilities were distributed and proper training provided.
“Today, though accidents in the IDF still happen – and there will always be some – there are nowhere near the amount there were back then,” Ben-Reuven says.
That is the change he aims to lead now from within the Israeli Builders Association.
He is pushing for proper training of workers, saying that the lack thereof leads to immense neglect on the workers’ part, because they were never taught otherwise.
The other pressing cultural change he is aiming for involves imbuing contractors with the understanding that saving money on safety is not the way to reduce costs.
“It can’t be that government tenders will automatically go to the bidder with the lowest expenses, because it’s on safety where the contractors save. That is part of the cultural change I’m leading. They need to understand that saving on safety will actually [ultimately] cost them more.”
He believes that a change is recognizable among contractors and that all involved parties are eager to turn the situation around.
Against his colleagues’ recommendation, he set a three-year target to reduce fatalities to single digits, “because if we fail to reach the target, we need to put our heads together and understand why we failed.”
Another front he is fighting on is to introduce technology into the field.
First and foremost, Ben-Reuven believes, construction sites need to be sealed off completely. Only one entrance into the site should exist, accessible only through a turnstile. Equipping the turnstile with a face-recognition camera would prevent free traffic – as is common now – and create another layer of accountability.
The government should assist in all these measures, he stresses, financing proper training as well as technological advancements.
HUNDREDS OF people’s stories have been ended abruptly in the past few decades, with numerous factors playing into tragic events in which people lose their lives. For many years, these stories have gone unnoticed, until public discourse finally began to push back at government inaction in the face of so many tragedies. While lawmakers and officials have been forced into facing the harsh reality, progress is slow on their part and the deterrence they create only goes so far in bringing about real change. What is more pressing, and indeed what civilian organizations have recognized and are working on, is a cultural change within all the levels of the working chain.
Ultimately, only a culture of personal responsibility of one’s own safety and the safeguarding of colleagues and subordinates can bring about immediate change, coupled with better organizational structure and governmental assistance in providing the education that leads to such responsibility.
While deterrence is important to bring home the message of the importance of safety, it is the motivation to spare lives that must stand at the center of the conversation – and will finally help prevent accidents before they happen.
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