Israel Police crack down on building site deaths

Eli Asayag

The commander in charge of the newly formed Peles police unit has told "Globes" that investigations into building site deaths are now being treated as murder cases.

In April, a Ramla residential construction project became a death scene. A routine lifting of a load ended in disaster when a metal pipe fell from a great height and killed a Chinese construction worker. The Lahav 433 Israel Police unit in nearby Lod gave the case to the newly formed Peles department, which has been set up to investigate building site fatalities. 

Four months have passed, and the investigation ended with a recommendation to indict four officeholders involved in the real estate project. This result is a rare event; similar previous investigations have dragged on for years, with few of them resulting in recommendations for criminal prosecutions. "One of the goals we set for ourselves is to finish the investigations within a short time," says head of the Israel Police National Financial Investigations Unit Eli Asayag, who is responsible for the Peles department.

"Globes": What does a short time mean?

Asayag: "I'm talking about a few months - a one-digit number of months. After we finish a few cases and see that it works, we'll set a regular target."

Given the surge in the number of work accidents on construction sites and severe public criticism in recent years, Peles was officially founded as a department of the National Financial Investigations Unit in January 2019. It contains 11 police officers (one assigned position has not yet been filled) and three accident investigators brought from the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services. The head of this small unit is Superintendent Yael Aharonovitz, who is under the command of National Financial Investigations Unit investigations head Commander Shlomit Landes.

We met Aharonovitz, Landes, and Asayag in Lod. They gave the first inside look at the unit - how decisions about beginning a Peles investigation are made, the unit's goals, and why they assert that it is now worthwhile for contractors to take safety much more seriously.

How does a Peles investigation differ from any other police investigation?

"We treat these events very seriously, like a murder," says Asayag. "When an event occurs, the detective squads go to the scene and close and neutralize it, like other events, and no one can enter the scene. We document the scene and investigate it in real time within a very short time span."

Almost 40 workers were killed on building sites this year. Peles's 11 police investigators are a drop in the ocean.

"It's not a drop; it's a fragment of a drop," Asayag answers, adding, "It's obvious that there's an entire envelope of detectives, assessment employees, and technical monitoring unit's 11 investigators. The fact that the unit was founded and its connection to the National Financial Investigations Unit, however, mean that the rules of the game have changed."

Landes: "As soon as someone is killed on a construction site and the commanders decide that the unit will handle the case, all of the unit's detectives go to the scene, seal it off, and detain the people involved for questioning. It can be 20 investigators; the entire unit springs into action. After several days, when the initial investigation calms down, Peles continues its handling of the case, but the entire National Financial Investigations Unit gives its backing to this department."

Asayag reveals another activity of the unit: "There are two intelligence coordinators working exclusively on work accidents. A signals intelligence (SIGINT, G.L.) unit works on the cases and uses wiretaps."

It's a work accident. On whom do they use wiretaps?

Asayag: "On people we suspect committed crimes in this area. Wiretapping already began when the unit was being founded."

How do you select the cases that require a criminal investigation?

"With the number of positions that we have been given, we won't be able to handle all of them. There was a case today of a fatal work accident involving an air-conditioning technician. I have no relative advantage in this case, and we also investigate only construction site accidents. As of now, the criterion for opening an investigation is a complicated work accident involving a significant technical element. This is a case that requires capabilities, personnel, professionalism, expertise, and everything around it, so it won't be given to us."

Since most of the investigations are not held by you, and the other units lack resources, are there accidents that are being investigated less thoroughly?

"Let's not expected everything to change overnight," Asayag says, noting that Peles's work and the accumulated knowledge are very important, because he says that it is being passed along to all parts of the police. "When I talk with an officer from the Investigations and Intelligence division in the Nahariya station, you hear that the talk is different. There are cases in which policemen from other units come to the scene and are able to say what's happening because of the work here. There are cases in which they call Yael Aharonovitz and ask what needs to be done. We're taking the lead and breaking new ground."

It no longer stops with the work manager

Peles has begun investigating only four work accidents to date. Other than the event in Ramle, the unit is investigating a fatal accident that took place in May 2019 in which a construction worker from Moldova was killed on a site for which Ashtrom was responsible. The unit is also investigating the death of four workers in Yaven on a site of the Neot Shamir company, controlled by contractor Rami Shviro, and a work accident last September in a residential project in Herzliya in which a Chinese worker was killed, for which a company controlled by Shviro was also responsible.

Shviron was arrested shortly after the accident in Herzliya. In the hearing on the extension of his remand, the police explained, "The investigation indicates that the climate on the construction site where the accident occurred was defective and negligent." The police representatives asserted that Shviro was arrested on suspicion of causing death through negligence. At the same time, the arrest of a well-known and recognized contractor like Shviro made many in the real estate sector wonder if his arrest was intended merely to send a message to the industry. Asayag rebuffs the criticism, saying, "I don't use sending a message as grounds for an arrest."

So we can expect arrests of more large contractors.

Asayag: "You're in the Lahav unit, which arrests all suspects, regardless of who they are. With all due respect for any particular contractor, if he is suspected of being involved in a crime and it's necessary to arrest him, then we'll arrest him."

Aharonovitz: In this sector, a suspicion requires a specific statutory provision. There is a certain restriction in the safety laws; in most cases, the work manager on the site bears responsibility. In most cases, the low-level person on the site, the work manager, bears most of the responsibility."

Is it necessary to amend the laws in order to widen the circle of responsibility?

Asayag: "Yes. Some of our duties in the unit are to suggest to the appropriate parties how to add legislation in order to improve it."

What, for example?

Aharonovitz: "We think it's necessary to pass a law making holders of other positions specifically responsible, with a clearer definition of the extent of their responsibility on the construction site. The work manager can't be responsible for everything: managing the work, making sure that blocks are brought, concrete casting, and also maintaining safety."

When everyone can learn how to dismantle a crane

The failures that the three police officers are talking about are nothing new to those who have been conducting the Sisyphean struggle against work accidents. The 36th construction accident fatality in 2019 just took place in Ra'anana. At the same time, it is very important that for the first time, the police are fully aware of the situation, and are declaring that they will take action in the matter in the dismantling and assembly of cranes, for example. "Anyone who wants to dismantle a crane can get up and dismantle a crane," Asayag says. "Does that seem logical in a modern law-abiding country? I'm risking the lives of dozens and hundreds of people. What if I'm in an urban area where there are kindergartens? I don't want to sound dramatic and scary, but it seems crazy to me. I wasn't aware of this.

"There are today video clips on YouTube showing how to dismantle a crane," Aharonovitz adds. There are other failures that the police have "discovered" since the Peles unit was founded. "You can buy a concrete pump and start working right away. How do you raise a crane, how put it on legs, and are you on soft or hard ground? Today, the machine itself doesn't have to be checked," Asayag says, and they mention numbers of concrete pumps that collapsed this year. As it happened, on the day following the interview, a work accident involving a concrete pump took place on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv.

Are you saying that right now, safety on construction sites is being widely ignored?

Asayag: "Construction sites in Israel have to undergo substantial change, so that people working there and passing nearby are not injured. It hasn't been stated officially, but that's the situation."

What other targets have been set for Peles in 2019?

"The target for 2019 was to found the unit, put systems into place, and train policemen. We didn't plan to handle cases, but the 100 days of grace seem to have ended after 60 days. There's another target - finding a place to store elements relating to work accidents."

Landes: "Our goal is to change the public's consciousness - the public in the narrower sense of contractors, developers, and work managers - so that they realize that the rules of the game have changed. The police will be after them, and this involves costs and financial damage for them. We see people on the social networks putting out notices, 'Peles was here,' or photographing our detectives. In time, this will have an effect that will lead to greater care being taken because of both deterrence and more concern. It is also of public importance, because the public won't be indifferent when several dozen people are being killed every year."

Asayag: "The most important goal is lower the number of fatalities."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 15, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

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