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California dismisses safety citations against SeaWorld


California workplace safety regulators have dismissed safety and health citations issued against SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Inc.

The Orlando, Florida-based theme park said the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health dismissed all citations issued in April 2015 against its orca safety and training program in San Diego, and will instead issue a special order based largely on SeaWorld's existing safety protocol, according to a statement published Wednesday on the SeaWorld Cares website.

“This decision will allow SeaWorld to continue our critical animal care practices and trainer safety training methods,” the company said in the statement. “These techniques are important to the safety of our trainers and veterinary staff as well as the health and well-being of the orcas in our care.”

The decision was approved by the Occupational Safety & Health Appeals Board in Sacramento on Thursday, according to a court document.

Cal/OSHA had issued one general and three serious citations carrying proposed penalties totaling $25,770, according to the document.

The citations specifically concerned close interactions between killer whales and trainers in the medical pool as part of SeaWorld's water safety training program and interactions occurring in performance pool slide-outs, according to an emailed statement from the Department of Industrial Relations, of which Cal/OSHA is a division. Prior to the settlement, trainers had been closely interacting with killer whales, without limitation in the medical pool, as part of SeaWorld's program, according to the statement.

The special order addresses these concerns and allows Cal/OSHA to re-inspect SeaWorld, with no objection, over the next two years to evaluate compliance and effectiveness, according to the statement.

This was not the first interaction SeaWorld has had with the California safety regulator. In February 2007, Cal/OSHA concluded an investigation into a November accident at its San Diego theme park by issuing a citation alleging two nonserious violations of occupational safety and health standards and an information memorandum, according to an agency statement at the time. But by early March 2007, the agency concluded it violated its own policies and procedures in issuing the memorandum and withdrew it.

Cal/OSHA also determined that a supplemental narrative made statements requiring expertise in animal behavior, which the agency did not have, and expressed opinions and other statements that were “clearly inappropriate,” leading the agency to express regret for the difficulties its issuance of the citation caused to SeaWorld, its employees and its patrons, according to the March 2007 statement.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration used the general duty clause under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to cite SeaWorld following the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was pulled into a pool by a killer whale — the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld in 2014.

“We don't have a standard for killer whales, but in fact killer whales are hazardous,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. ”What we found was that SeaWorld put this trainer under very hazardous situations that resulted in her death.”