Learner fraud is something Mike Zilkowsky sees all too often. As the onboarding, training and competency manager for Arnett and Burgess Pipeliners in Blackfalds, Alta., he often has prospective workers providing a copy of their certification for ground disturbance or hydrogen sulfide (H2S) that turns out to be a fake.
“When we check it, there’s no record of them ever taking the training,” he says. “Unfortunately, it’s sad to say, but it’s becoming more and more commonplace. We see these tickets where guys are just using Photoshop and they’re editing tickets and putting their name on it because they don’t want to pay to get the training.”
For about $500, a worker can pay for fake tickets (also known as certifications or wallet cards) for the three commonly required courses in the oil and gas industry: H2S, ground disturbance and first aid. Actually completing all the courses would take four days and cost between $400 to $600, Zilkowsky says.
“In the oil and gas industry, we’re not hiring people because we’re going to need you in three months — it’s ‘We need you out there tomorrow,’” he says. “I think a lot of the times when the workers are told what they need they’re like, ‘Yeah, no problem, I know a guy.’”
Unfortunately, learner fraud is not only present in the oil and gas industry. The more traditional industries, such as mining and construction, are experiencing problems too, says Trevor Gartner, president of Yardstick Training in Edmonton. But it truly can be found in any industry. For example, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods (TDG) certification is ripe for learner fraud, as is Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), he says.
It’s not just a Canadian issue. According to the Construction Safety Advisory Committee of New York, the industry saw an increase in fraudulent construction safety cards that aligned with the construction boom in 2017. On some job sites, up to 50 per cent of workers had fake cards, costing the lives of 30 construction workers between 2015-17, the committee says.
In the United Kingdom, a 2015 BBC investigation revealed steeply rising cases of fraudulent Construction Skills Certification Scheme cards, a required document for working in the industry. There were 96 reports in 2012, 264 in 2013 and 311 in 2014. The investigation revealed numerous test centres were offering guaranteed passes for cash.
The occupational health and safety space is particularly vulnerable to learner fraud, says Gartner.
“The desire to fake a credential is really tied to a person’s livelihood. We see that the urge to cheat, to fake credentials, is pretty darn high,” he says. “It (affects) them, their families, their wives, their kids, their husbands.”
Situations are also arising where workers are having someone else complete all or some of an online course for them — yet another example of learner fraud. In R. v. Rose’s Well Services, an Alberta employer was convicted of safety offences after two workers were badly burned in a fire while off-loading hydrocarbons from a tanker truck. As part of its due diligence defense, the employer pointed to the fact that its workers had taken the Petroleum Safety Training from Enform, an online program providing basic safety training for oil and gas workers. However, at trial, one worker testified to helping his co-workers through the program and even answering the exam questions for many of them.
One way to solve the problem of fraudulent wallet cards is to be extremely diligent about background checks. Ideally, employers would pick up the phone and call the issuer of the wallet card, provide the applicant’s name and certification number and verify that the card is legitimate.
“I’d love to see that it becomes common practice; every employer, checks every ticket,” says Zilkowsky. “Yes, it would take longer, but it’s going to ensure workers actually have the proper training.”
Unfortunately, not many employers are taking this step, so it’s a pure trust relationship between them and the individual they just hired, Gartner says.
Employers need to pay close attention to the wallet cards and look for tell-tale signs that they may not be legitimate. White-out on the expiry date and several certificates being issued on the same day are red flags, says Kathryn Lockhart, vice-president of SkillsPass in St. John’s, N.L.
“Someone who is smart and picks up on that goes, ‘There’s no way you could possibly have taken all that training on the same day because they’re all of a certain length,’” she says. “Everyone we talk to has a story of a fraudulent wallet card incident of some kind.”
Another solution is relying on digital certificates, rather than paper ones. SkillsPass is a provider of digital wallet cards. The software provides a very clear trail of how a record got into the system, from who uploaded the certificate to what training provider it came from.
“It provides that level of confidence in what you’re looking at and seeing how it got into the system,” Lockhart says, adding workers are not allowed to upload their own certificates. “The liability lies on the shoulders of the employer… They need to be in charge of all the parameters that could allow fraudulent behaviour into the system, so we try to lock that down as best as possible.”
There are many technologies available for learner fraud prevention that employers may want to consider. For example, technologies that verify the identity of the test-taker, such as facial recognition software, can be beneficial. Web-based proctoring enables the student to be supervised remotely during a course or examination. Remote proctors often have split screens where they can monitor many different students remotely at the same time. Additionally, some test software cuts off Internet access during the test to further prevent cheating.
One verification technology available on the market is Learned Verified. It uses a three-step process to verify the identity of the trainee: a government-issued ID, a real-time photo and biometric signature (the way an individual types on a keyboard). To further prevent cheating, the program monitors if anyone else enters the room while the student is completing their training. This feature proved quite useful the very first day the technology was launched in January 2018.
“Our first Learner Verified pop-up came on, so we all gathered around the computer and it was the most rewarding but sad event of the day,” Gartner says. “Some guy in his late 50s was taking the TDG course… He does the right thing, he puts in his ID, his facial image, his keyboard biometrics; it starts and you literally see him shift his chair to the left and somebody come in from the right and for 98 minutes, you saw half of one head — because he was half on the screen half off — and some other dude, who we have no idea who this guy is, for 98 minutes, takes this course.”
Accordingly, the individual failed the course, got appropriate feedback and completed the training properly the next day.
Zilkowsky uses Learner Verified for the ground disturbance course. While his other mandatory courses are in-class with a practical component and have well-established proctoring and identity verification techniques, he needed a way to feel the same confidence in his ground disturbance online training.
“The standard online ground disturbance certification for us, there was no way to say definitively, ‘Yes, the worker’s whose name is on the certification sat in front of a computer or their tablet and we can verify that they 100 per cent were the person that did it,’” says Zilkowsky.
According to Iain Bailey, associate at law firm McLennan Ross in Calgary, employers need to be aware of the recent case of R v. Precision Diversified Oilfield Services, where the Alberta Court of Appeal provided some clarity around the general duty clause. It said the Crown needs to prove more than just the occurrence of the incident itself — it must also articulate some evidence as to what steps the employer didn’t take in the circumstances or how it failed to ensure the health and safety of its workers.
“Now, the Crown in a general duty defence has more of an onus to articulate specific defects in a compliance program, so they may more heavily scrutinize training programs or the integrity of them,” Bailey says. “That might be something they look at more carefully in years to come because they do have that onus to site specific faults.”
According to the 2015 report Web-Based Training Identity Verification and Proctoring from the Industrial Occupational Safety and Health Association of Alberta, courts and prosecutors will examine what technology was available that would have reduced the likelihood of the incident occurring.
“If technological or engineering advancements are economical and readily available and an organization does not use such tools, then the defense of due diligence is weakened and the organization is exposed to liability,” the report says.
If evidence of cheating emerges during a trial, that can present a “serious hurdle” for the employer at a time that is already quite stressful, says Bailey.
“If you’re in that process and you determine there may have been learner fraud, that can add additional complications to the process of showing the integrity of your safety compliance program and that everything that could reasonably have been done to prevent the accident was done,” he says.
However, not all workplaces need anti-fraud training measures in place, says Bailey. Before adopting new technologies, employers need to conduct a “reasonableness analysis.”
“The question the employer needs to ask is: ‘How reasonable are these precautions compared to what’s at stake in terms of safety and the integrity of the system?’” he says. “It really is an investment decision… A lot of the workplace training that takes place is quite low in terms of risk for cheating.”
Bailey recommends employers have well-moderated training (which may include web-enabled identity verification and/or proctoring) and a strong digital record of the training in order to prove ongoing competency evaluation in a workplace.
“It is one strategy an employer can use to improve record-keeping and ultimately, in the long run, if they ever do find themselves in a situation where they need to prove compliance, that record-keeping does go a long way to provide evidence of that,” he says.
Employers also need to consider privacy laws whenever they are engaging in background checks, identity verification or data collection. The company should have a sophisticated privacy management system, including obtaining consent from employees, putting safeguards in place to protect the information and being prepared to disclose the information to the employee upon request, Bailey says.
If learner fraud is revealed within an organization, employee morale and the safety culture can take a hit.
“If employees come to be of the impression that other employees are not buying in or engaging in the process with integrity, that may erode confidence in the system for them and erode compliance overall,” Bailey says.
For Zilkowsky, any type of learner fraud is of grave concern because it means workers are coming on site without the proper knowledge and are putting themselves and their crews at risk. The company ends up with workers in the field who are supposed to be qualified but, in reality, they don’t understand the hazards for the tasks they are required to perform.
“It begs the question: If they are willing to cut corners when they are obtaining training, are they going to cut corners in their assigned tasks?” Zilkowsky asks.
Putting processes in place to prevent learner fraud can give some peace of mind to safety professionals.
“It definitely helps propel those workers because now they’ve actually got that qualification of taking a course,” Zilkowsky says. “Hopefully now that’s going to make it easier for them to complete their tasks safely.”
Trust the trainer
Not all training providers are created equal. Stories have emerged across Canada of trainers giving students the answers on tests, cramming lessons into short time frames, using high-pressure and misleading sales tactics and offering workplace training courses without authorization.
Follow these tips when selecting training providers:
• Do your research. Check references and read reviews.
• Engage with the provider. Call them up or have a face-to-face meeting to get to know more about them. Don’t be afraid to ask all the hard questions.
• Look to your peers. What training providers are others using in your industry? Are they happy with the results?
• Check with trade associations. They likely know many of the big players and can provide recommendations for whatever training you need. Some will provide a list of authorized trainers for applicable courses.
• Meet with a consultant. A trusted and credible safety consultant can be a great resource and often has many stories to tell about trainers — the good, the bad and the ugly.
• Looks for awards and recognition. Has the training provider won any awards for the services they provide?
• Turn to government. Some governments or safe work agencies list approved training providers on their website, such as the Ontario Ministry of Labour for Working at Heights Training or WorkSafeBC’s list of occupational first aid training providers.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2019 issue of COS.
© Copyright Canadian Occupational Safety, HAB Press. All rights reserved.
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