Brooklyn ‘Safety’ Firm Sold Fake Construction Training Cards, DA Charges

The case against Odessa Safety comes after undercover agents reported they exchanged cash for documents that falsely certified they received 40 hours of required safety training.

April 27, 2023 Greg B. Smith, The City
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Based in Midwood, Brooklyn, Odessa Safety offers training courses where construction workers can take multiple hours of classes and obtain the job safety certificates that are required on all NYC job sites.

“Your safety is our priority,” the company’s website promises.

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Odessa’s employees also do worker safety monitoring on job sites around the city, and last year they were brought in to make sure demolition of four adjacent East Harlem buildings was performed safely and according to code.

And then the complaints to the Department of Buildings started piling up:

Bricks falling on cars. Unsafe scaffolding.

No demolition permits. No guardrails on upper floors.

Masonry and bricks sitting on a support beam above laborers working underneath.

DOB inspectors returned week after week, issuing violations against the demolition contractor that Odessa was supposed to monitor. At times, city inspectors even shut down the site. They also slapped a violation against the site superintendent Odessa had assigned to the job, citing inadequate supervision.

Then two weeks ago the company and its owner, Alex Kaushanskiy, faced another challenge: both were hit with criminal charges for allegedly peddling bogus safety training certificates following an undercover probe by the city Department of Investigation.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez charged Odessa and Kaushanskiy, 35, with three counts of second-degree criminal possession of forged instruments, along with three counts of first-degree falsifying business records — the same counts ex-President Donald Trump faces in Manhattan.

Reached Tuesday by THE CITY, Kaushanskiy declined to comment, stating, “Contact my attorney” before hanging up. The number listed in court records for his attorney, Craig Newman, was not in service. A message left with Odessa was not returned.

Recent Requirement

Unsafe construction sites have been a longstanding problem in New York City, where the annual number of workers who died on the job peaked at 28 in 2014. In 2017 the City Council enacted a tough new standard requiring all workers to take 40 hours of safety courses to be able to work on most job sites. (The number of deaths fell during the pandemic, with 13 in 2020 and 20 in 2021.)

With a bolstering of training requirements came the inevitable grifters eager to make money off of regulation meant to save lives.

“They’re trying to take advantage of mostly immigrant workers. In some ways, these workers don’t even know what’s happening,” said Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the nonprofit job safety watchdog New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH). “For a company giving out fake cards and really stealing money for something that’s not even valid, it’s really disheartening.”

A sign posted to an East Harlem residential construction site said workers were required to have safety training.
Construction workers at an East Harlem residential development were required to have safety training, April 24, 2023. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

NYCOSH provides site safety training that enables workers to get the required certificate, and Obernauer noted that the group has consistently encountered workers taking the group’s courses who report they have either been offered fake cards or know someone else who has one.

A few months back the group partnered with the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg to offer free training to workers who have bogus cards in exchange for testimony from the workers about where they got them. They got about two dozen responses, she said.

“The trick is trying to get the workers to share their experience of where they got the fake cards from,” Obernauer added.

Not a New Problem

The Department of Buildings routinely checks construction sites for these cards and found 500 bogus ones in the last year. Last June the agency invalidated some 6,000 site safety cards issued by a training firm, EHS Academy LLC, after an audit raised questions about the legitimacy of the training. All workers with EHS cards had to obtain retraining from an approved outfit.

And last year state Inspector General Lucy Lang uncovered a “massive fake ID scheme” when workers at the state-owned Javits Center were found with bogus safety cards. Two individuals who were openly selling OSHA cards (and other IDs) online were ultimately arrested. “I GOT EM OSHA POPPIN WHAT’S THE WORD,” one of the defendants boasted on Facebook.

The investigation of Odessa and a training firm based in Bensonhurst, National Site Safety LLC, started in November when the New York City Housing Authority performed a routine sweep, checking cards at a renovation job in the Walt Whitman Houses in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. They notified the Department of Investigation when they discovered several cards “with discrepancies,” according to the Brooklyn DA. (An attorney for National Site Safety’s owner did not return calls.)

Records show Odessa is based in a three-story apartment building on Coney Island Avenue between a hair salon and a storefront selling sex toys called X-Lent Vibes, a.k.a. “The Sexy Shop.” DOI investigators posing as construction workers signed up for training courses they offered, including 30-hour Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) classes, as well as the site safety training (SST) certificate that DOB requires at all job sites in New York City — including the East Harlem site.

The undercover agents soon discovered they didn’t actually have to take any training classes to get the required card. They merely filled out course attendance sheets for in-person classes that they did not attend, and they got the cards certifying they were well-versed in job site safety techniques, according to the indictment. The 32-hour SST training cost $650, the 30-hour OSHA training cost $350.

A few months before DOI began looking into Odessa, the company was hired by a Brooklyn demolition company, Candid Connection, to monitor job safety during the take-down of three adjacent apartment buildings on Third Avenue and East 110th Street in Manhattan. The buildings were to be razed and replaced by a gleaming new condo tower.

From the start, DOB began fielding complaints to the city’s 311 hotline from a business next door, Prestige Automotive, and from other callers in the neighborhood about what was portrayed as a job site that endangered both workers and passersby. Prestige in particular alleged that workers were dropping bricks and rocks on top of cars parked in its lot, records show.

Candid Violations

By mid-May, after the first few complaints and some visits from DOB, Candid Connection hired an Odessa employee as construction superintendent.

But even after that, DOB found multiple more violations. DOB found Candid did not have the required demolition permits, for example, and was not providing required safety orientation to the 26 workers on site, records show. Inspectors found there were no required guardrails on the second floor, and that masonry and bricks from demolition work on the second floor sat on beams above laborers working on the first floor.

Inspectors issued three stop-work orders from May through October, including one in June in response to a complaint that alleged “No protections for pedestrians. Also no guardrails. Unsafe conditions throughout site,” records show.

At one point in December, Kaushanskiy and Candid filed suit in Manhattan Supreme Court against Prestige alleging they’d been unfairly targeted with a blizzard of complaints. But the lawsuit was withdrawn in early March, just five weeks before the DA revealed the charges against Kaushanskiy and Odessa.

All told, the buildings department issued 20 violations against Candid, four of which were later dismissed, and 16 of which were declared resolved after the company provided proof that the cited issue had been remedied, records show. But the department issued nearly $40,000 in fines, of which Candid had paid about $5,000 as of Tuesday. Candid’s CEO, Valera Panuca, told THE CITY Tuesday the pending payments are the subject of ongoing hearings at the city Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.

In July the inspectors also issued citations to the superintendent Odessa assigned to the site because there were four separate buildings being demolished simultaneously, and he was only assigned to one building. DOB imposed a $2,500 penalty, but the violation was resolved without a payment when safety managers were placed on each site, records show.

The Buildings Department confirmed to THE CITY that a day after the DA made the charges against Kaushanskiy and Odessa public, the agency suspended Odessa’s authorization to provide safety training and banned it from distributing all safety cards.

Because Site Safety Training cards are printed on a particular kind of plastic cardstock, law enforcement confiscated all of the blank cardstock materials found at Odessa so they couldn’t print out any more, DOB officials said.

Additional enforcement actions may be taken pending the ongoing criminal case, DOB officials added.

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