A laborer works on an apartment building under construction in the Har Homa quarter in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Construction is by far the Jewish nation’s most dangerous occupation, besides, perhaps, work in the Mossad or other top secret intelligence units.
Every year more than half of all job-related fatalities take place on construction sites. Falling from a high place is the most common way to die.
In contrast, in the 28 European Union countries, construction accidents made up just a fifth of fatal work-related accidents in 2014.
The number of people who are killed in construction in Israel is high compared to other Western countries. On average around 13 or 14 construction workers die for every 100,000 construction workers. The EU average was 5.87 per 100,000 in 2013. Israel’s level of construction sector casualties is comparable to Cyprus or Portugal. 2016 was a particularly bad year for the construction sector, with 50 deaths. There have been nine so far this year.
Deaths among foreign construction workers – most of whom come from China and Romania – have been on the rise, while deaths among Israeli and Palestinian workers have been steady or on the decline in recent years. Foreign workers are twice as likely to get killed on the construction site as Israelis.
Non-fatal injuries are not particularly high in Israel, but this could be because many of the approximately 260,000 construction workers who work here are either foreigners or Palestinians who tend not to report their injuries – and perhaps cannot read Hebrew warning signs.
Six workers were killed last September when a parking garage being built by Africa Israel collapsed in Ramat Hachayal, Tel Aviv. In February and March construction cranes collapsed at building sites, injuring workers. These accidents helped raise awareness of a well-known problem.
But while the low level of safety at construction sites is no secret, there has been no real attempt by the government to tackle the problem, aside from an initiative launched last month by Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz that focuses exclusively on construction cranes.
The main problem is a lack of manpower, Ran Cohen, head of the Occupational Safety Division at the Labor, Welfare and Social Services Ministry, told Lidar Gravé- Lazi, The Jerusalem Post’s education and social welfare reporter.
Cohen’s division is responsible for overseeing safety measures for construction sites as well as some 60,000 office buildings and an additional 100,000 sites such as elevators, sports fields and defibrillators stationed in public sites. But Cohen laments that he has only 18 inspectors – which means each one would have to inspect some 25 sites each day to annually inspect all 160,000 just once.
Thus we would argue that, even if Cohen had 100 inspectors, he would still be unable to police all the construction sites of the nation. What is needed is more stringent punishment, including fines combined with incentives that would force contractors to improve safety conditions.
Building contractors must know that they will be held personally responsible for accidents and deaths and will be forced to pay the consequences for less-than-adequate safety measures.
Those were the recommendations of the Udi Adam Committee, which presented its findings in April 2014 but has been gathering dust ever since. Apparently, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has no intention of clashing with the powerful building contractors’ lobby on this issue.
Contractors resist change, claiming that strengthening safety measures on building sites would cut into their bottom line.
The question is whether the Histadrut, politicians or social activists are willing to take up the cause of construction workers. Around a quarter of these workers are foreigners or Palestinians who live in the West Bank or east Jerusalem, and a large percentage of those defined as Israelis are Israeli Arabs. These groups don’t stand a chance against the power contractors’ lobby.
The best solution to the high death rate on construction sites is not to add more inspectors and regulators. What is needed is a system that transfers the responsibility for safety to the construction contractors through fines and incentives. The question is, who will step up to fight this battle?