Fake Training Cards Are No Joke In NYC Construction
The city’s Department of Buildings uncovers fraudulent IDs and licenses on active job sites.
In the 2007 classic "Superbad," an underaged kid tries to pass as older with an obviously fake ID on which he is identified only as "McLovin." Apparently, New York City construction sites are littered with McLovins who are posing as having qualified safety training for their very dangerous jobs.
A handful of years ago, fake training cards and licenses had their heyday in New York City’s construction world. It was uncanny how often building inspectors conducting routine checkups on job sites would uncover the use of fake training certificates—usually Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cards. Once Site Safety Training (SST) cards came into play, they were faked too.
But thanks to a long term crackdown by the building department, fake training credentials are harder to come by on construction sites today. But the mere existence of them is problematic, because it means there are untrained workers on job sites that could lead to serious accidents.
And though rarer today, fake cards remain a bane in New York. Throughout 2022, the DOB uncovered 500 fake safety cards. As recently as this past April, three New Yorkers were indicted for allegedly creating and selling dozens of fake safety cards to construction workers who never received training. And in May, the Brooklyn-based company Odessa, which offers training courses for construction workers, was slammed with criminal charges for reportedly using mock safety training certificates.
The NYC DOB issued press releases and reminders to all construction workers to complete or renew their site safety training, which is required by Local Law 196. -- NYC DOB
Why workers opt for fakes
In 2017, the enactment of Local Law 196 made 30-hour OSHA trainings mandatory for construction workers. Once a worker completed the training, they obtained their OSHA card. These cards must be renewed every five years in New York City (they don’t expire in all states).
Local Law 196 also detailed the introduction of SST cards. Today, these cards are "SST connect cards" and are digitally readable; they became officially mandated earlier this year. The first SST cards were issued in 2018 and began expiring this year, so this past June, a press release went out to remind the industry about renewing them. In order to renew their cards, workers must complete eight hours of “refresher training” (and supervisors must complete 16 hours.
An anonymous figure within New York City’s building department who works in enforcement told Union-Built Matters that it was all too common to uncover fake OSHA cards when the cards were newly introduced—they were made of paper and easy to mimic. More recently, though, it has become increasingly difficult for fakes to be made since the cards are made of plastic with precise features. Nevertheless, convincing fakes remain on the scene and inspectors have had to become learned at how to discern them.
“Letters would be misplaced, characters were incorrect, imperfections were printed,” said the unnamed source about uncovering fake SST cards on job sites. “Also, the QR codes on the back were misplaced, there were spaces in wrong places, and that sort of thing.”
Inspectors and other safety enforcement figures will occasionally conduct sweeps for fake training cards on sites, randomly asking workers to reveal their cards. The inspectors can tap the cards with their phones to verify the owners’ training. “Your phone will read the card and tell you what credentials the person has,” said the anonymous source. He cited an instance in which he tapped his phone against a worker’s card and saw ten certificates pop up, even though the worker was only 22—it would be impossible for such a young worker to possess credentials that would take years to obtain. “I couldn’t even say a word because I was so taken aback, and almost impressed,” the anonymous source said. “This card had all the trainings you could possibly imagine.”
But when an inspector uncovers fakes, all they can do is issue a violation. “We can’t tell workers with fake cards they can’t work anymore,” said the unnamed buildings department worker. “The contractor is the one who’s got to be responsible for that.” If training isn’t completed, a violation with a civil penalty of up to $5,000 per untrained worker can be issued to the owner of the site, the permit holder, and the employer of the untrained worker. Plus, a violation of $2,500 would also be issued if a permit holder fails to maintain a log that proves all of the workers at a site are trained.
Thankfully, as the anonymous source said, “it’s very hard to make fraudulent cards these days because they update the cards” often. “We still see fakes—we still do—but not constantly anymore. We might see one card out of the blue. But contractors are more careful today, checking everyone’s credentials so they can avoid big fines.”
Unfortunately, when an inspector uncovers fakes, all they can do is issue a violation. “We can’t tell workers with fake cards they can’t work anymore,” said one inspector.
The safety implications
Even though fake SST cards are less common today than they used to be, their mere existence still remains a threat for the construction industry. It is reasonable to assume that workers who lack legitimate training cards lack them because they have not received the minimum safety training, and safety on construction sites is a longstanding issue in the Big Apple, with ten workers reportedly dying on the job in 2022, according to the DOB.
“If one worker doesn’t take a training, he’s putting himself in danger—but also all of his colleagues around him,” said the anonymous source. “He doesn’t have the training to know what to do, and there are hazardous conditions around him.” The anonymous source detailed laborers he has seen who don’t pay attention to their surroundings, rush around sites, and do things like put on the wrong sized harness for fall protection. At least if an inspector sees someone conducting this sort of sloppy behavior on a site, they know to check over their training credentials.
One can speculate that fraudulent SST cards are more likely to be found on non-union job sites, where bad acting contractors are notorious for skimping on safety in order to speed up project timelines and cut costs. Further unionization across New York City will surely also help boost safety efforts on the construction scene, although there is no data to back up that claim. “Union workers generally have much more training, while non-union workers might make more mistakes or be more likely to have a fake card,” said the anonymous buildings department source.
In two incidents that occurred on the same job site just weeks apart, non-union workers employed by Trident remodeling the Waldorf Astoria, fell from ladders and suffered gruesome injuries. It is believed by some that non-union workers will buy fake safety cards to get work and their employers turn a blind eye to the practice.
The bad actors
When the City Council started to require safety training for construction workers in 2017, it was in response to years of deaths and injuries being reported on job sites. But the condition for laborers to attend safety training courses opened up a world of vendors creating and selling illicit counterfeit training cards to workers. Many of the purchasers of such cards, building department workers report, are immigrants and non-native English speakers who may have been intimidated by English training courses, or otherwise found the training inaccessible.
But most inspectors and enforcers do not blame the laborers themselves, opting to see the sellers of bootleg training cards as the nefarious actors in these situations. “As when anything new comes out, black markets develop and cottage industries blow up,” said the Local 211’s Gugliotta. “People try to take advantage in any way they can, and crooks appear on the scene. These fraudulent providers out there take people’s money and give them cards for trainings they never did.”
Gugliotta suggested that protocols need to be developed to counteract those bad actors and close up loopholes. But he hopes workers will be encouraged to simply avoid the black market moving forward; things in the buildings world are different today than they were just a few years ago, with safety courses more accessible and progressive, offered in a variety of languages. “Now, workers feel safer in having these trainings—they are educated because they can take a class at their convenience and in their own language.”
Fortunately, the buildings department will continue to monitor the licenses present on job sites. “I absolutely think things are better today due to the hard work and persistent work of New York City building inspectors constantly going out and checking to make sure that these cards are authentic and that these individuals are all trained according to city building code with the local law,” said Gugliotta.
Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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