PROVIDENCE — State and federal authorities have opened investigations into a recoating project at a downtown parking garage after union representatives said the steel beams there tested positive for lead paint — and workers weren’t properly abating for contamination.
The multi-level garage at 233 Weybosset St., across from the Providence Performing Arts Center, caught the attention of painting and trades union members last week when they saw plumes of dust coming from the garage and spreading over the vehicles inside.
Rob Hill, an organizer with Rhode Island Painters and Allied Trades, said they tried to speak to the workers sandblasting a section of the garage. The men spoke only Spanish and initially claimed not to know who they were working for, Hill said.
The workers weren’t wearing proper protective equipment for sandblasting, Hill said, and the section they were working in was poorly enclosed.
“Usually, you’d have rigid containment,” Hill said, “but this had the rigidity of a garbage bag.”
Hill said that he applied lead-paint test sticks to the beams in the garage, and the applicators immediately turned bright red, showing positive for lead paint.
“This is shocking,” Hill said. “I was like, whoa, this needs to be handled immediately.”
Justin Kelley, business representative of International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 11, said they notified the state Department of Labor and Training to check whether there were issues with employment, and the state Department of Environmental Management, and the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding health and safety concerns for of the workers at the garage site.
All three agencies told the Globe that they’d opened investigations and had sent inspectors to the site.
Lisa Garabedian Regan, the president and CFO of Bliss Properties, which owns the garage, said she didn’t believe there was any lead paint. The garage was built in 1983, she said, five years after lead paint was banned in the United States.
“We have no reason to believe there’s any lead in there,” Regan said. “If there is, we will be 100 percent compliant.”
Glenn Stapans, the owner of Dr. Colors LLC, based in Rhode Island and Florida, said that’s why he hadn’t expected any lead paint in the garage. “It’s inexplicable,” he said Friday.
Stapans said his company was hired to recoat the structural steel. DEM tested an area of the garage where they were working, and after testing about 30 spots, found one that tested positive for lead, Stapans said.
The work at the site paused on Friday. “We’re going to wait until we’re cleared. We’ll make sure we have the thumbs up,” Stapans said.
OSHA has been on site working with the contractor to make sure the workers had proper protective equipment. Stapans said he posted notices from OSHA on Friday.
“I’m really good at what I do. My guys are good at what they do. We take working downtown very seriously,” Stapans said.
OSHA already has an open investigation into Dr. Colors, a non-union company, after a complaint filed in September 2022 alleged that it didn’t properly protect its workers from falls at a job site in Tiverton.
The union also contacted the Childhood Lead Action Project, where executive director Laura Brion said they were extremely concerned that the workers, and their families, may have ingested or inhaled toxic lead paint dust that could easily be taken home on their clothes and equipment without proper protection.
Brion said they were also concerned about anything in and around the parking garage that may have been coated with the dust — and what it could mean for people in the area.
“Even if the lead dust isn’t visible, it can still be highly dangerous — and even harder to avoid,” Brion said in an email. “Lead dust too small to see can still poison a child or an adult.”
That’s why workers have to wear special protective equipment, so they don’t risk being poisoned by breathing in the dust or carrying it off the job site on their clothes and contaminating their vehicles and homes, she said.
No blood lead level is considered safe in children, and even low levels of lead in blood can affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. Very high lead exposure can cause death, according to the CDC.
In adults, lead can cause high blood pressure and issues with the brain, kidneys and reproductive health.
Every few weeks, a crew of union representatives from the building trades make unannounced visits at different construction sites and hand out cards from Protect Your Pay Rhode Island to inform workers about wage theft. As in this case, some of those visits lead them to contact authorities about health and safety issues.
Kelley, of the painters union, said he is frustrated that the work has been allowed to continue, while state and federal inspectors were monitoring the work.
On Friday, he sent a letter to DEM, DLT, OSHA, and the US Environmental Protection Agency, requesting a meeting. Kelley also included Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, Governor Dan McKee, Providence Mayor Brett Smiley, and Providence City Council President Rachel Miller.
“We have been frustrated with the lack of response, and decisive action to stop this clear and present danger to the children of Providence, the public at large and our environment,” Kelley wrote. “Additionally, the lack of interagency co-ordination, at such an egregious violation of the laws of our land and protocols put in place to protect the public has also been frustrating.”
Even if the lead test kits the union used had produced a false positive, Kelley said, the sandblasting and now water-blasting is sending contaminants into the air and the streets, with the public unaware of the hazards.
“We want to see with these investigations, whether it’s labor law, environmental safety, stop the work, make them pay the fines and penalties, give them option to fix it, and then go back to work,” Kelley said. “If someone was committing a crime, a police officer wouldn’t allow them to continue committing the crime.”