Constructive criticism

As we celebrate the Sukkot holiday week, we sit in temporary booths, or tabernacles, that remind us of the Israelites’ journey through the desert following the Exodus. Many rabbinic thinkers also consider the roofless booths as a symbol of the fragility of life in general. This holiday, then, despite its festive aspects, is a good time to raise an issue that is often overlooked in Israel: the number of fatal accidents in the construction industry.

Since the beginning of 2018, 32 construction workers have been killed in on-site accidents and many more have been injured. Two passersby were also injured as a result of accidents on building sites. In the same period the previous year, 24 people died in construction accidents – a shocking figure in itself, before this year’s increase.

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In just one dreadful day last month, three construction workers fell to their deaths in incidents that occurred at two different sites. Two were Palestinian men who died as they fell from scaffolding outside the 15th floor of a building in Rosh Ha’ayin, and one was a Chinese man who fell while plastering a building in Lod.

Accidents don’t just happen. They are the result of several different factors. In some cases it seems building contractors concerned about costs push for work in unsuitable conditions, expecting crane operators, for example, to work in high winds. Sometimes workers themselves are lax when it comes to abiding by safety measures. It is unfortunately not rare to see men on high scaffolding without even safety helmets or harnesses. Often, there is no safety netting to prevent people below from being hit by falling objects.

Ministerial responsibility is divided among different offices, and there are not enough safety inspectors to enforce the existing regulations. According to a report in The Jerusalem Post following a fatal accident last year, there are only 18 supervisors employed by Labor Ministry’s occupation and safety administration responsible for some 13,000 known construction sites throughout the country. In addition, it is not always easy to rely on the report of the safety manager following an accident, making police inquiries and indictments that much harder and reducing deterrence.

There are two other harsh factors to consider. The first is that the media and public do not pay sufficient attention to even the fatal accidents, because most of those employed are either foreign workers or Palestinians, not part of mainstream society. China reportedly started blacklisting specific Israeli construction sites earlier this year, following a series of deadly accidents.

The other cause is the lethal “yiheyeh beseder” (“It will be alright”) mentality, combined with the complacency of the “li zeh lo yikreh” (“It won’t happen to me”) and the arrogance of the “smoch alai” (“Trust me”) ways of thinking.

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As Amotz Asa-El wrote in his Middle Israel column on September 14 titled “Israeli apologies for 5778,” “All the elapsed year’s sins of exclusion dwarf when compared with 5778’s overarching sin, the abandonment of our construction workers to the devices of heartless owners and reckless taskmasters.”

The public must also take responsibility and act to stop the carnage at construction sites. Too often we focus on security issues – and there is no lack of threats – while ignoring safety issues that also take their toll but without grabbing headlines. People buying homes in new high-rise apartment buildings or choosing a contractor for an urban renewal or home reconstruction project must check the company’s safety record. Accidents and safety hazards should be reported.

Pressure must be put on contractors to realize that worker safety is not an expensive luxury but an essential part of getting the job done properly. Workers are not dispensable, and their lives should not be put at risk just because they will not later reside in the neighborhood where they are building fancy homes. And consider this: The construction company that is willing to risk the lives of workers in order to cut costs cannot be trusted to abide by the safety standards that should protect the future residents in the event of an earthquake or explosion.

As we dwell in our temporary, fragile booths, we should make a resolution for the Jewish year 5779: It is time to come out of the wilderness and enforce safety standards that protect lives.

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