Why was Dr. Valery killed at the Haifa container terminal?

Chronicle of a death foretold: After 17 years as a general worker at the Overseas Commerce container terminal in Haifa, Dr. Valery Bundrenko was killed in an appalling accident on Oct. 9, 2011, when a container crushed him to death. Truck drivers and workers at the terminal report a high number of accidents which only by a miracle did not claim the lives of workers.

Chronicle of a death foretold: After 17 years as a general worker at the Overseas Commerce container terminal in Haifa, Dr. Valery Bundrenko was killed in an appalling accident on Oct. 9, 2011, when a container crushed him to death. Truck drivers and workers at the terminal report a high number of accidents which only by a miracle did not claim the lives of workers.

Valery Bundrenko was crushed to death by a shipping container during his work at the Haifa container terminal operated by Overseas Commerce Ltd. His colleagues claim there have been many accidents recently which, they say, could have been avoided if safety regulations were put into practice. The company is proud of its workers, and asserts on its website that they are its most important asset for success, but has Overseas Commerce done all it can to protect this important asset?

On the Sukkoth Jewish holiday eve, I visited the Bundrenko family in Haifa. Valery’s widow Jeniya and his son Alex were happy to receive me. With other family members who were present, they told me about the deceased, with a little help in translating from Russian to Hebrew. The Bundrenko family came to Haifa from Ukraine at the end of 1994. Valery, who was a doctor for 35 years specializing in intensive care and emergency services, was compelled to seek alternative work because of language and acclimatization difficulties in his new country. After a few months, he began working at the Overseas terminal via Peer Manpower Services Ltd., until he was taken on directly by Overseas in 2005, where he worked diligently until the day he died – and his age, 69 at the time of his death, is testimony to his industriousness.

The family lives on the fourth floor of an apartment building in the Hadar Neighborhood. The living room where we sat is full of Russian literature, and on a small table there is a computer connected to the internet. In response to our question, they said Valery liked to read classic world and Russian literature as well as professional medical literature. Though Valery was employed in unskilled work since coming to Israel, it’s clear that the family members are highly educated. An enlarged picture of Valery, showing him full of life, underlines his absence and intensifies the sense of catastrophe that changed their lives so suddenly.

How did such an accident happen? After all, he was an experienced, skilled worker. The family doesn’t know; they say the case is still under investigation. They only know he went off for a day’s work at the Haifa container terminal and didn’t come back. An article (in Hebrew) posted in the Ynet news website on the day of the accident does nothing to clear up the mystery. The reporter notes that a container fell from a crane onto the worker, who is about 60 years old, for reasons that are still not clear. But in a Channel 2 news item edited by Yossi Mizrahi, ZAKA staff member Zvika Fried sheds some light on the issue and hints at what occurred. According to his understanding of events, he said, the container didn’t fall. It was simply lowered, and the worker was killed on the spot. It may be understood from this that the crane operator didn’t even see Valery, and simply lowered the container onto him. In the Channel 2 item, a former employee at the container terminal says that there are clear regulations which state that a crane operator must be directed by someone who signals that the area is clear. In this case there was nobody directing. If there had been someone to direct, there would have been no accident. So it seems the operators’ safety procedures are impaired, he continues – the company doesn’t invest in this much because there is a shortage of manpower, and one person is compelled to do the tasks of three.

From the things said by employees in the news item, and from things heard by WAC staff from truckers who are often at the terminal premises because of their job, it seems that safety at the terminal is lacking. Valery’s workmates assert that accidents happen all the time. For example, about six months ago a container fell onto a trailer. Two months ago, the bottom of a container disintegrated while the container was in the air, and dozens of drums flew everywhere. In both cases, it was miraculous that nobody was hurt. The frequency of accidents, one might think, would lead to greater awareness and stricter following of safety regulations, but according to the latest accident that resulted in unnecessary loss of life, it seems this has not happened.

From conversations with truck drivers who enter the Overseas terminal daily, it appears there is a difference between the port and the Overseas terminal in everything regarding safety and the preservation of lives. E., a veteran worker, talks about the overcrowding at Overseas which, he says, makes it hard to ensure the safety of workers. D., an experienced driver, says that the crane at Overseas regularly lifts containers over the cabin of semi-trailer trucks in which the drivers are sitting, in a way that puts their lives at risk. This wouldn’t happen at the port, D. says. At this moment, the crane operator cannot see the worker because to the right and left there is a wall of containers, and in front of him there is the container he is lifting, so his field of vision is completely blocked. E. agrees, and says the storage areas of the port are wider, and allow safer movement.

WAC staff visiting the port and the Overseas terminal have also seen a number of near accidents. Even at the entrance, the difference between declarations and behavior on the ground can be seen: those arriving see a sign declaring that entrance is permitted only to those wearing a reflective vest, but it is often possible to see visitors or workers on the site without such a vest.

The terminal where Valery was killed belongs to Overseas Commerce Ltd., which is owned by Zim (owned by the Ofer family) and Zeevi Holdings Ltd. This is a private terminal, like a number of other private terminals competing with each other and with Haifa port in providing storage services, and emptying and filling containers as they arrive or before they are shipped.

This chronicle of frequent accidents in recent months that ended with the death of Valery Bundrenko should set the alarm bells ringing on the issue of port privatization. In the light of workers’ claims regarding the difference between levels of safety in the Overseas terminal and the port, one must consider whether there is a connection between this difference and the issue of privatization of the ports, which frequently comes up on the public agenda. One can’t help wondering whether the competition between the private terminals and the port, like that between subcontractors and private companies, leads to less investment in safety, the results of which harm workers and their families who will pay the price of privatization with their own lives.

Representatives of Overseas Commerce attended the funeral and visited the family in a gesture of goodwill, but the family is left with the sorrow and misery of the loss and an empty space which cannot be compensated by gestures. With no workers’ representation or union to organize workers in the private terminals, the family is left without any knowledge at all about the investigation and its findings, or about their financial security in the future.

Deputy manager of Overseas Commerce Aviv Korengold responds to our questions:

The worker was insured, with all required insurance, and his family will be eligible for all benefits applicable to survivors/dependents according to the terms of the insurance.

Every new worker or external contractor is trained in comprehensive and inclusive safety issues (including safety in the use of forklifts) before beginning work, and is subject to the company’s safety protocols, overseen and guided by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, including safety regulations which meet safety standards.

According to the company’s safety instructions and standards, it is forbidden to be in the operations area unless a vest is worn. This regulation is strictly enforced by the guards at the entrance and the safety officer. Furthermore, there is a safety committee and certified safety officer active on site during the operation of the crane. The steps taken by the company following the accident were: assembling the workers, explaining again safety regulations and protocols for ongoing activities (including work with forklifts) to prevent the occurrence of similar cases.

The independent trade union WAC-Maan, via its legal department, assists families of workers injured on the job, including following the progress of investigations by the Ministry of Labor, and exercising the rights of survivors in case of death or in the case of injury and disability.

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About Dani Ben-Simhon