Workplace deaths rose for a second consecutive year in Israel, with 91 workers losing their lives in workplace accidents in 2019 – the worst year in a decade. Over the past two years, the rate of deaths in work-related accidents has risen by 56 percent, according to a report released Thursday by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. While in 2017, the workplace fatality rate was 1.26 per 100,000 workers, in 2018 the rate rose to 1.62 per 100,000, and in 2019 it reached 1.97 per 100,000 – the highest figure in a decade.

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Number of fatal workplace accidents per 100,000 people (Graphics: IDEA)

Construction workers are in the greatest danger, and for decades have suffered the highest rates of fatal workplace accidents across the entire Israeli workforce – 6.6 times than that of the average worker in Israel. In 2019, approximately one in 7,500 construction workers lost their lives at the workplace, among the worst rates seen across OECD nations. In fact, although they make up only 7.2 percent of Israel's workforce, approximately half of fatalities each year are construction workers.

About one-third (33.7 percent) of fatal workplace accidents from 2017 to 2019 were caused by falls from heights; one-fifth (19.5 percent) were caused by falling objects; 14.6 percent due to vehicular accidents; 12.2 percent due to collapsed walls, construction molds, scaffolding or other elements; 6.3 percent due to electrocution; 5.4 percent due to explosions or blasts; 3.4 percent due to entrapment; 3.4 percent due to suffocation or poisoning; among other causes.

Despite announcing their goal of achieving a 10 percent reduction in workplace deaths, the Ministry of Labor reported a 22 percent increase in the number of fatalities compared to the previous year. Over the past three years, the number of workplace fatalities has increased every year in all sectors of the economy: construction, services, trade, industry and agriculture.

The most vulnerable members of society at highest risk

The victims of these fatal workplace accidents are disproportionately the most vulnerable members of Israeli society. Israeli Arabs and Palestinians and other foreign workers are consistently over represented in the number of deaths. Lower rates of accident reporting, poor enforcement and lack of safety laws, lack of proper equipment and oversight, insufficient training and workers operating without licenses are all among contributing factors to this phenomenon.

Construction Workers in Jerusalem, Archive (Photograph: Gil Yaari/Flash90)

Israeli safety laws do not apply over the green line and are not enforced there. According to the ministry's policy, these people are therefore not included in the death toll. The ministry’s report does not include three fatalities in workplace accidents that occurred over the green line: Gabriel Cohen, who fell from a ladder in the northern West Bank on August 24, Ashraf Mashale, who was killed in the collapse of a concrete slab at a factory in the Mishor Adumim industrial area on August 19, and Jabar Saleh Atallah, a truck driver who was crushed between a truck and a trailer in Hinnanit  on August 22.

The official ministry data for workplace deaths is lower than the total reported by many NGOs, as it excludes deaths not strictly classified as workplace deaths in Israel, such as deaths which occurred over the green line, or at family-owned properties.

Fatalities in Workplace Accidents, 2017-2019 (Graphics: Idea)

The ministry noted that 58 percent of fatal construction accidents in 2019 occurred at sites managed by contract construction companies which share a special status: the highest classification offered by the Ministry of Housing, known as a 'C-5'. This rating authorizes them to engage in the most complicated types of construction. Equipped with ‘C-5’ clearance, these contractors can manage unrestricted work on virtually any type of construction project with unlimited financial scope.The problem with this kind of construction work is that Israel’s laws enforcing safety standards have not evolved to meet the dangers involved with ‘C-5’ grade projects, which produce the majority of construction worker fatalities, primarily falls.

Left: European Standard Scaffolding. Right: Scaffolding in Netanyah, Israel (Photograph: Eliran Avital, Omer Cohen)

 

 

Falling is not only the most common cause of fatal accidents in construction, it is also the number one cause of fatal workplace accidents overall. The ministry stressed that deaths from these kinds of falls could have been avoided if there had been strict compliance with the law and if safety regulations for working at heights had been upheld.

The content of these laws, however, has been the subject of a multi-year struggle across Israeli society. Many individuals and organizations argue that Israel’s workplace safety laws are not comprehensive enough and are not reliably enforced. This struggle culminated in a 2018 threat of a general strike initiated by the Histadrut, encompassing the entire workforce and aiming to keep construction workers safe. Previous Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn said, “The indifference of decision makers and employers regarding the safety of the construction industry continues to cost us in human lives, and as time goes on we see more and more workers losing their lives

Unions Preparing for a General Strike. "Work to live, not to die" (Photograph: Arik Millman).

Trade Union Protest Against High Death Rates in the Construction Industry (Photograph: Oren Cohen )

The threat of a general strike, in November of 2018, led to an agreement  between the Histadrut and the Israeli government to improve labor safety laws. The Histadrut's list of requirements for industry safety regulations included meeting European standards for safe scaffolding reinforcements, mandatory wearing of harnesses, enforcing proper regulation for crane operators, and the introduction of a compulsory safety guide for all state construction and infrastructure projects, among other requirements.

Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon, Minister of Labor Haim Katz ans Head of the Histadrut Union Avi Nissenkorn, Signing the Agreement to Prevent a General Strike (Photograph: Haim Katz Spokesperson)

 

The agreement, which lays the groundwork for significant improvement in safety standards, nonetheless remains largely unimplemented.

After two stalemate election cycles, the Israeli government has been frozen for almost a year now and is unable to pass new policies or implement new programs. In light of this reality, the implementation status of many of the agreed-upon improvements to Israeli occupational safety law remains in limbo.

Implementation Status of ConstructionIndustry Safety Agreement, December 2019 (Graphics: Idea Davar)

 

Meanwhile, for many thousands of construction workers across the country, it is business as usual. With no new developments on the horizon, they have no choice but to continue working under old regulations, until the governmental impasse comes to a resolution.