Federal ruling might mean the end of trainers swimming with orcas at SeaWorld parks
Published: August 23, 2010 at 10:52 AM
The U.S. federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration today fined SeaWorld Orlando $75,000 for violations found in an investigation following the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau last February. The park's six-ton Tilikum whale attacked and drowned Brancheau when she was lying on a shallow ledge along the edge of the orca tank in Orlando.
In addition to the history with this whale, the OSHA investigation revealed that SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities, including its location in Orlando. Despite this record, management failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees.
"All employers are obligated to assess potential risks to the safety and health of their employees and take actions to mitigate those risks," said Les Grove, OSHA's area director in Tampa, Fla. "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."
The fine is a pittance for a multi-billion-dollar business such as SeaWorld. But OSHA's also imposing new work restrictions on SeaWorld trainers. No more contact with Tilikum, unless separated by a physical barrier. And no more in-pool contact with the other orcas, either, unless SeaWorld devises some system to protect trainers from attacks.
Perhaps not surprisingly, SeaWorld's contesting the citation:
The tragic accident on February 24, 2010 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.
Unless SeaWorld prevails, this would mean the end to that iconic moment at SeaWorld parks when trainers launch off the nose of a killer whale, out of the pool and into the air.
Theme Park Insider readers were skeptical in a vote last winter that SeaWorld would stop using completely marine mammals in live performances. But today's citation will change the way that SeaWorld interacts with those animals, at least for the next several months.