Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Syrup mill injury list lengthens...

Can you stand another Bob Odom story? Laura Maggi reports in the T-P:

Seventeen Agriculture Department employees have been injured since July at the sugar syrup mill the state agency is building in southwest Louisiana, the Senate Insurance Committee was told at a hearing Monday, almost twice the number of injuries previously reported at the state-run construction site.

Out of the seventeen employees that the state Office of Risk Management thinks were injured doing construction work at the Lacassine mill, only four had construction-related jobs at the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said J.S. "Bud" Thompson Jr., director of the office that handles the state's workers' compensation claims. The other thirteen employees normally worked nonconstruction jobs, but likely were helping do menial construction work at the site.

Since the late 1980s, Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom has used his workers to help with construction, from revamping the agency headquarters in Baton Rouge to putting up regional offices. The department now is working on its most ambitious project yet: a $45 million syrup mill that proponents say will help struggling sugarcane farmers at the edge of sugar country in southwest Louisiana.

But the project isn't without controversy, in part because since construction began on the project last year, Odom at some point has diverted about a third of his 831 employees from their regular jobs to help with the less-skilled construction work, such as laying concrete molds or installing rebar. These workers, who are all men, include agriculture inspectors, environmental specialists and even highly paid, white-collar employees such as assistant commissioners, the state veterinarian and a lawyer.

Thompson said that injuries reported to his office could range from "first aid" situations to more serious problems. He could not tell the committee how much money in medical costs has been paid out, but said that two of the claims involved employees who could not go to work for more than a week. For example, the construction site manager, who is a pesticide specialist, was injured in a fall last summer and missed six months of work.

One reason for the injuries could be that the agriculture employees have a "general lack of awareness" of the hazards of a construction site, Thompson said.
"That's part of the problem you have with nonconstruction employees who are part of a regular crew," he said.

Thompson's office previously had said there had been nine injuries at Lacassine since October and another during the summer. Odom disputes the office's figures, saying that he has counted only eight injuries at the Lacassine site.


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