Minister, Contractors Scramble to Improve Worker Safety Before Strike

Construction workers. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Labor and Welfare Minister Chaim Katz is set to tighten regulations on scaffolding used at construction sites, his office announced. The new regulations will follow European guidelines, with higher barriers and stronger measures to keep scaffolding in place. The Labor and Welfare Ministry will work with other Ministries on legislation to require contractors and building companies to adopt the new standards, with penalties to be built into the law for those who fail to update their scaffolding.

Those penalties could include fines, if inspectors catch contractors failing to uphold the standards – or criminal charges, if a construction worker falls to his death off scaffolding. That has happened over 30 times this year, and it is the reason for a work dispute that was declared several weeks ago by the Histadrut labor union, which has threatened to go on strike and shut down the economy unless the government does something to improve safety conditions at workplaces, especially construction sites. Adoption of the European standards on scaffolding is a central demand of the union.

The rules he is developing, Katz said in a statement, “are the best response to the need to improve the safety of scaffolding, and encompasses the material scaffolding is made of, how it is constructed and how it is used, taking into account the stress it is expected to sustain.”

At the same time, the Contractors Association declared Wednesday that next week will be “Construction Worker Safety Week,” in which contractors and construction firms will hold talks and activities for workers aimed at instilling safer work practices. The activities, said the group, will “increase the solidarity between workers and employers to expand the war against work accidents, and greater care to ensure safety at construction sites.”

The Histadrut several weeks ago declared an official “work dispute” that includes all unionized workers in the Israeli economy. According to Israeli labor laws, a work dispute is declared in advance of a strike. The declaration of a work dispute sets off a two-week period in which negotiations between the union and management takes place. If the issues are not resolved, a strike can be called.

“Management” in this case is the government, and the issue behind the potential strike is not money, but job safety. According to the Histadrut, “there is an ongoing phenomenon of a lack of enforcement of safety laws and issues throughout the Israeli economy,” which has resulted in relatively high levels of deaths and injuries among workers. The problem is especially acute in the building trades; in 2018 so far, 31 people have been killed in construction accidents, while more than 100 have been badly injured.

“Something must be done to reduce the numbers of dead and injured among workers,” Histadrut head Avi Nissenkorn said in the statement. “This cannot continue. This is a national problem and we must take immediate steps to end the dangers to workers on the job and restore safety standards. Our conception of the value of human life is at odds with the lackadaisical attitude we have about worker safety. The numbers are unacceptable, and more and more workers are victims of situations where their deaths could have been prevented. Unfortunately the state continues to act as if it doesn’t care,” he added.

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