By Ashley Johnson, associate editor
Yowyea Chiou was surprised when a man showed up at her restaurant in 2007 claiming to be an inspector from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. In more than 20 years of running China Garden in Bakersfield, CA, Chiou had never been inspected by Cal/OSHA, but she let the man in.
Chiou recalled that the man flashed a badge and walked around the restaurant, identifying dozens of so-called violations. He told her the fine would be in the thousands, but said he sympathized with small businesses so he was willing to cut her a deal – if she paid up front.
“Then I started to get a little bit suspicious,” Chiou said.
Her instincts were correct – the man was not a real Cal/OSHA inspector. Chiou tried calling Cal/OSHA but no one answered, so she stalled with an excuse about waiting for her business partner and the imposter left.
Schemes similar to the one Chiou encountered are not unusual. A Cal/OSHA spokesperson told Safety+Health that fake inspectors tend to come and go – a number of sightings will be reported and then things will die down for a while. Most of the recent complaints have come from vineyards, where a fake inspector will show up at odd times, as well as scrap metal facilities and restaurants run by immigrants.
“Employers need to call police if someone is shaking them down for money,” the spokesperson said. “Police are in a much better position to apprehend the suspect.”
The spokesperson cited the case of a “safety consultant” who told a number of employers they had been cited by Cal/OSHA, when in fact they had not. She claimed to have connections and offered to take care of the fine if the employer paid her a certain amount. The woman approached at least seven employers between May and October 2009, obtaining approximately $415,977 from them, according to Cal/OSHA. She has since been charged and has pleaded guilty.
Another type of scam involves sales reps trying to pressure employers into buying OSHA posters by saying they are necessary for compliance. In reality, OSHA’s Workplace Poster is available for free on its website.
Some fraud concerns training. In December, a former employee of the New York City Department of Buildings was sentenced to two years in prison for selling fake training certifications to workers who had not completed the required training.
The following Q&A with a federal OSHA spokesperson provides additional information on what to look out for and how to respond to suspected fraud:
Safety+Health: What types of fraud has the agency seen?
OSHA: OSHA does not keep a database on the frequency of these incidents. However, we are aware of reports of individuals fraudulently representing themselves as OSHA inspectors to solicit payments from businesses. A recent example involves individuals who impersonated OSHA compliance officers during the Gulf oil spill to collect money from employers for training.
In that case, federal law enforcement officers arrested these individuals for this illegal practice.
In addition, persons misrepresenting themselves as OSHA officials may offer OSHA training for money, provide counterfeit training course completion cards, advertise training courses that falsely imply an affiliation with OSHA, or inaccurately claim a class is “certified.”
S+H: What are some red flags that someone is not an official OSHA inspector?
OSHA: If the individual refuses to explain the reason for the visit or fails to present credentials, this person may be impersonating an inspector. If the individual does not have proper identification or does not want you to call the local OSHA office, this individual is likely not an OSHA official. Lastly, if the individual insists on having an employer pay any fine immediately after the inspection, offers OSHA training for money, promotes the sale of a product or service, or offers to certify equipment, etc., that person is not an OSHA inspector.
S+H: How else can employers recognize and avoid fraudulent activities?
OSHA: In addition to avoiding persons claiming to be OSHA inspectors, employers should be aware of fraudulent training claims. Fraudulent trainers may conduct 10- or 30-hour outreach training courses in less than the specified amount of time; improperly use guest trainers (who also are not certified); or have improper, inaccurate or missing records. Each authorized outreach trainer is required to maintain records on their training for five years. These records include correspondence from the authorizing training organization, which provided the cards to the trainer.
To verify that the trainer is certified, check the individual’s OSHA trainer card. The card includes the trainer’s name, their authorization expiration date, and the name and phone number of their authorizing training organization. You may contact the authorizing training organization to verify the trainer’s status.
S+H: Are any security measures in place to ensure the authenticity of OSHA 10- and 30-hour training and cards?
OSHA: In November 2009, OSHA developed and secured new student cards for the 10- and 30-hour Construction and General Industry Outreach Training programs with enhanced card security features to prevent fraud. Security measures include a fine-tint watermark and a void pantograph to deter card copies.
S+H: What should people do if they encounter someone impersonating an OSHA official?
OSHA: The public is asked to call OSHA’s outreach fraud hotline at (847) 725-7810 to file complaints about training program fraud and abuse. OSHA will continue to refer trainer fraudulent activity to the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General, and trainers caught falsifying information will be subject to criminal prosecution.
If an employer feels that a person is impersonating an OSHA compliance officer, they should contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation or local law enforcement officials immediately. Posing as a compliance officer is a violation of law. Employers also should contact OSHA at (800) 321-OSHA.