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SeaWorld contests OSHA fines in whale trainer's death


ORLANDO, Fla.—SeaWorld of Florida L.L.C. said Monday that it is contesting citations and fines totaling $75,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the death of an animal trainer.

SeaWorld briefly suspended its Believe shows and Dine with Shamu experiences at its parks after Tilikum, a 22-foot-long, 12,000-pound orca whale, grabbed trainer Dawn Brancheau’s ponytail, dragged her underwater Feb. 24 and killed her in front of about 50 onlookers in Orlando, Fla. The spectators reportedly stayed after the Believe show to watch trainers feed the whales.

An OSHA investigation into the incident found that even though trainers had a history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at various SeaWorld facilities, including Orlando, SeaWorld management “failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees,” OSHA said in a Monday statement.

OSHA’s investigation also found that the whale was one of three involved in the 1991 death of an animal trainer at Sealand of the Pacific in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“All employers are obligated to assess potential risks to the safety and health of their employees and take actions to mitigate those risks,” Les Grove, OSHA’s area director in Tampa, Fla., said in the statement. “In facilities that house wild animals, employers need to assess the animals under their care and to minimize human-animal interaction if there is no safe way to reliably predict animal behavior under all conditions.”

OSHA issued one “willful” citation to SeaWorld for exposing its employees to “struck-by and drowning hazards” when interacting with killer whales. The agency defines a willful violation as one committed with “plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health.”

OSHA issued a second, “serious,” citation to SeaWorld for exposing employees to a fall hazard by failing to install a stairway railing system on the front side, left bridge of the stage in part of the Shamu Stadium. OSHA issues serious citations when death or serious physical harm is likely to result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

OSHA issued a third, “other-than-serious,” violation for failing to equip outdoor electrical receptacles in the stadium with weatherproof enclosures. An “other-than-serious” violation is described as a situation that relates to job safety and health that would not likely cause death or serious physical harm.

SeaWorld responded immediately to the citations with a statement asserting that it “disagrees with the unfounded allegations made by OSHA today and have already informed the agency that we will contest this citation.”

“OSHA’s allegations in this citation are unsupported by any evidence or precedent and reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the safety requirements associated with marine mammal care,” the statement said.

SeaWorld also said “the tragic accident…inspired an internal review of our whale program that has been unprecedented in scope. The findings of that review have been presented to an independent committee made up of some of the world’s most respected marine mammal experts. Their conclusions, drawn from decades of experience caring for marine mammals, are in stark contrast to OSHA’s.

“The safety of SeaWorld’s killer whale program was already a model for marine zoological facilities around the world and the changes we are now undertaking in personal safety, facility design and communication will make the display of killer whales at SeaWorld parks safer still,” SeaWorld said.

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