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Home / Articles / News / National Today /  Federal agency fines SeaWorld $75,000 in trainer's death
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Tuesday, August 24,2010

Federal agency fines SeaWorld $75,000 in trainer's death

By McClatchy-Tribune News Service

ORLANDO, Fla. — Federal regulators blasted SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment on Monday for allowing animal trainers to work with killer whales without adequate protection, concluding a six-month investigation into the violent drowning of a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando.

Investigators with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommended that SeaWorld trainers never again have direct contact with Tilikum, the six-ton killer whale who drowned trainer Dawn Brancheau on Feb. 24. But they also recommended that trainers not be permitted to continue swimming or working in close contact with the company's smaller killer whales — unless SeaWorld implements new safeguards.

The agency proposed fines totaling $75,000 for Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks, which generated approximately $1.4 billion in revenue last year.

"SeaWorld recognized the inherent risk of allowing trainers to interact with potentially dangerous animals," Cindy Coe, the OSHA administrator in charge of the southeastern U.S., said in a prepared statement. "Nonetheless, it required its employees to work within the pool walls, on ledges and on shelves where they were subject to dangerous behavior by the animals."

In its written statement, OSHA added that its investigation "revealed that SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities. ... Despite this record, management failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees."

SeaWorld immediately said it would challenge OSHA's findings.

"SeaWorld disagrees with the unfounded allegations made by OSHA today and have already informed the agency that we will contest this citation," the company said in a written statement. "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 closely watched federal investigation, sparked by the worst tragedy in SeaWorld's 46-year history, culminated with OSHA citing SeaWorld for one "willful" workplace-safety violation — a particularly harsh category that the agency defines as a violation committed "with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health." OSHA also issued a pair of lesser citations for violations that it discovered during its probe but which were unrelated to Brancheau's death.

As part of the main citation, the agency singled out interactions with Tilikum, an animal that investigators said had "known aggressive tendencies" because he was one of three killer whales who drowned another trainer at a Canadian marine park nearly 20 years ago. Although SeaWorld has barred trainers from swimming with Tilikum since acquiring him shortly after the 1991 tragedy, OSHA cited the company for still allowing "unprotected contact" by permitting trainers to work with the animal from tank edges and shallow, underwater ledges.

Dawn Brancheau was lying face-to-face with Tilikum on one of those underwater ledges when the killer whale grabbed her by her long ponytail and pulled her underwater. OSHA said SeaWorld could eliminate the hazard by not allowing trainers to work with Tilikum again unless they were separated from the animal by a physical barrier.

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."

The recommendation leaves an opening for SeaWorld to allow its trainers to re-enter the water with killer whales once the company completes its own safety review and implements procedural or equipment changes.

While the company has not permitted trainers to get into the orca tanks since Brancheau's death, it indicated Monday that it eventually expects to do so once its internal review is complete.

SeaWorld noted that its own findings have been reviewed by a panel of experts from outside aquariums and marine institutions — ranging from Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario, to the U.S. Navy — and that they stand in "stark contrast" to OSHA's conclusions.

"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. "It also is important to note that while maintaining a safe environment for our trainers, the demands of humane care require our zoological team to work in close physical proximity to these animals."

SeaWorld declined Monday to discuss specific changes it expects to make because, it said, its own review process is not completed. But in an e-mail to employees, SeaWorld Parks Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison quoted a statement from the outside panel praising both the scope of SeaWorld's own review and its planned safety changes.

"Although the highest price has been paid, by implementing these ideas, their currently exemplary program should emerge better equipped to ensure the welfare of both trainers and animals," the panel said, according to Atchison's e-mail.

OSHA also slapped SeaWorld with two lesser citations: one for not installing stairway railings on two bridges on the stage used for "Believe" killer-whale shows, and the other for not equipping outdoor electrical receptacles around SeaWorld's orca complex with weatherproof enclosures.

SeaWorld will appeal OSHA's findings to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, an independent administrative court overseen by a three-person commission appointed by the U.S. president. Atchison told SeaWorld employees that he expects the process will take "months."

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(c) 2010, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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