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OSHA fines SeaWorld for worker safety issues following orca trainer's death

August 23, 2010 |  7:13 pm

Tilikum

Months after SeaWorld Orlando marine mammal trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed in an incident involving a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has announced that it has cited SeaWorld for workplace safety violations.

According to OSHA, it found three specific violations in SeaWorld's conduct, most notably one it classified as a "willful" violation for "exposing [SeaWorld] 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 also noted two lesser violations, one "serious citation" for "failing to install a stairway railing system on the front side, left bridge of the 'Believe' stage in Shamu Stadium" and one "other-than-serious citation" for the Orlando, Fla., park's failure to place weatherproof enclosures over outdoor electrical outlets in the stadium. The agency fined SeaWorld $75,000 in total for the three violations.

SeaWorld quickly issued a statement calling the OSHA findings "unfounded" and announcing the company's plans to contest the 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 continued.

Brancheau, a veteran trainer, was pulled into the water by Tilikum while interacting with him on a poolside platform. Horrified spectators watched as he swam around the tank with Brancheau in his mouth, and it was about half an hour before SeaWorld staff members were able to corral him to remove her body. She died from drowning and traumatic injuries, according to a medical examiner.

It was the third time Tilikum had been involved in an incident involving a human fatality. He was one of a small group of orcas blamed for the 1991 death of a trainer at his previous home, a Canadian marine park called Sealand of the Pacific. Eight years later, a man's body was found draped over Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando. Authorities ruled that the man, who had apparently either hidden in the park after it closed the previous evening or sneaked in after-hours, had died of hypothermia, but it was also believed that Tilikum had bitten him at some point before his body was found, possibly believing he was a toy.

OSHA investigators recommended that SeaWorld Orlando staff members never again have direct contact with Tilikum, and also recommended that they don't come in contact with the park's other resident orcas unless procedural changes are implemented. The Orlando Sentinel explains:

SeaWorld has prohibited trainers from coming into close contact with Tilikum since Brancheau's death. A spokesman for the company said Monday that change in policy is permanent.

OSHA also said that trainers were exposed to similar risks from the rest of SeaWorld's killer whales. But the agency's proposed remedy for the remaining orcas was less strict than with Tilikum: OSHA said trainers should not be allowed to swim with the remaining orcas unless they are protected by a physical barrier or "through the use of decking systems, oxygen supply systems or other engineering or administrative controls that provide the same or a greater level of protection for the trainer."

Although SeaWorld Orlando's public orca shows have resumed, trainers haven't gone into the water with the animals since Brancheau's death. The company says they probably will reenter the water with the orcas at some point, but not until its own review of the incident is completed.

Monday's announcement from OSHA added fuel to the fire stoked by a former SeaWorld staffer, Linda Simons, who started work as the company's director of health and safety shortly before Brancheau's death in February. Simons, who was fired by the company during the course of OSHA's investigation, has said that SeaWorld staff had no illusions about the safety of working in close proximity to Tilikum.

On ABC's "Good Morning America," she spoke of an orientation for staff members starting work with the park's orcas she termed the "Tili Talk." "They talk to you about going into the water with Tili," she said. "That if you go into the water with Tili you would come out as a corpse."

Simons claims she was fired for her candidness in dealing with federal investigators. SeaWorld vigorously denies this, saying Simons was fired for poor performance during the inspection and accusing her of using "the threat of negative publicity to seek a sizable monetary payment from SeaWorld in exchange for her not going public with these false allegations."

After news of OSHA's citations against SeaWorld broke, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was quick to renew "our call for the release of all the orcas at SeaWorld to seaside rehabilitation pens," Jennifer O'Connor wrote on the group's blog.

"OSHA should be lauded for concluding that SeaWorld acted willfully in Dawn Brancheau's death, but notwithstanding the lawsuits that are sure to follow, the only thing that will prevent misery and death in the future is for SeaWorld to stop capturing and confining wild marine mammals and to let these orcas go," Ingrid Newkirk, PETA's president and co-founder, said in a statement.

The group is calling on Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (PDF) to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the marine park.

RELATED STORIES ABOUT TILIKUM:
Taima, SeaWorld Orlando orca, dies giving birth to stillborn calf fathered by Tilikum
Animal activists call for changes at SeaWorld following trainer's orca death

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Tilikum in 1999. Credit: Frank Rivera / Orlando Sentinel

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