Over the past few weeks, things have been developing briskly and harshly in the fight between SeaWorld and the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). After trainer Dawn Brancheau was drug underwater and killed on February 24, 2010 by Tilikum, the parks largest Orca whale, OSHA brought three citations against SeaWorld and accused them of committing a “willful” safety violation, its most severe classification, by not “more adequately protecting trainers.”
According to the Orlando Sentinel, OSHA’s ruling against the park not only slaps the park with a $75,000 fine, but what they want to require of trainers working with animals could put much more at stake for the $1.2 billion-a-year business at SeaWorld parks. The ruling could also open up potential for a whole new slew of potential lawsuits, and could affect zoos and animal parks throughout the US in a similar way. Jack Hanna, celebrity biologist and director of the Columbus Zoo told the Orlando Sentinel “A lot of people are following this. I’m concerned about the about the outcome. And I think anybody in our business should be.”
The biggest problem SeaWorld faces isn’t even the accusation that it committed a “willful” safety violation, but OSHA’s proposal for how the problem be fixed, or “abated.” Not only do they recommend prohibiting trainers from being in the water with the whales, but even from being at the edges of the pool unless protected by a “physical barrier.” OSHA has stated that for smaller animals at SeaWorld, they may not need such drastic measures, but would still “accept other means of abatement,” including but not limited to: decking systems, emergency oxygen supplies, and vast engineering changes. While it may be the safest measure and precaution that could be taken, it would also be the most costly and prohibitive.
Since the incident, trainers have been prohibited from being in the water with the park’s killer whales, but the company has made it clear over the months it would like to find a solution to allow them to interact in the water once again. SeaWorld is ready to spend tens of millions of dollars in safety improvements, such as a “false-bottom floor” they’ve installed in the same pool Brancheau was killed in, as well as vests for trainers to wear with emergency air supplies. If tests with these innovations are successful, and the whales can be trained to ignore the vests, SeaWorld plans to utilize these in all their pools at all of their parks. Even still, OSHA wants more, they want the “physical barrier.” Pending the results of the hearing, if SeaWorld resumes water work, it could face a fines of $7,000 per day.
This past week, SeaWorld went to court with OSHA for a hearing, with SeaWorld fighting against OSHA’s accusations of “willful” safety violations. SeaWorld spokeswoman Becca Bides said in a statement, as reported by WESH Orlando, “SeaWorld disagrees with the unfounded allegations made by OSHA. These allegations are completely basesless, unsupported by any evidence or precedent, and reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the safety requirements associated with marine mammal care.”
SeaWorld has a reputation of being one of the best in the world when it comes to marine life rescue, rehabilitation, care, commitment, and training. In the hearing last week, they challenged the testimony of Dave Duffus, a professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia whom OSHA is using to argue against the safety aspect of their findings. But SeaWorld questioned much of his testimony since his research involves wild, rather than captive, whales, and even got him to admit and support that SeaWorld was among the best at what they do. The hearing, which took place over last week, is now in recess until mid-November, so stay tuned at that time for any more developments from this story.