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OSHA, others investigate fatal SeaWorld accident

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OSHA, others investigate fatal SeaWorld accident

ORLANDO, Fla.—The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating whether any workplace standards were violated by SeaWorld Orlando when one of its veteran killer whale trainers was killed by an orca whale implicated in two previous deaths.

In addition, the U.S. Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service also was inspecting the Florida theme park to see if any violations of the U.S. Animal Welfare Act contributed to the incident and warrant a full investigation.

Meanwhile, Jim Atchison, president of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, said during a news conference last week that the company is reviewing the safety and training protocols it has in place for interacting with all killer whales at each of its three SeaWorld parks.

SeaWorld immediately suspended its Believe shows and Dine with Shamu experiences at its parks after Tilikum, a 22-foot, 12,000-pound orca whale, grabbed trainer Dawn Brancheau's ponytail, dragged her underwater and killed her in front of about 50 onlookers last week in Orlando. The spectators reportedly had stayed after the Believe show to watch trainers feed the whales.

The killer whale shows were expected to resume last Saturday, but the trainers will not enter the water with the whales until Sea-World's investigation and any subsequent protocol changes are complete, Mr. Atchison said in the news conference.

Although Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 in Victoria, British Columbia, and also was involved in the 1999 death of a man who sneaked into SeaWorld Orlando, Mr. Atchison said Tilikum will remain at SeaWorld. However, procedures for interacting with the male, which are unique given Tilikum's size, will change, Mr. Atchison said. He declined to elaborate.

Bill Avery, a safety consultant based in Maitland, Fla., who specializes in amusement parks, said while companies like SeaWorld have some of the best safety procedures in place, “there's always that one element—it's still an animal. You can do everything by the book...you can follow all the rules and on any one given day you can die,” he said.

He noted that any potential liability for SeaWorld would arise from information found in the various investigations.

SeaWorld's Mr. Atchison said the company has made every effort to contact and reach out to all of the spectators who witnessed the attack.

“We feel awful about it...it's not something we want to avoid,” he said.

Attempts to reach SeaWorld for comment about its insurance coverage were unsuccessful.