On Feb. 24, a 6-ton killer whale grabbed a trainer and pulled her under the water as park guests watched. Video footage shows the killer whale repeatedly striking and thrashing the trainer and pulling her under water even as she attempted to escape. The autopsy report describes the cause of death as drowning and traumatic injuries.
“SeaWorld recognized the inherent risk of allowing trainers to interact with potentially dangerous animals,” said Cindy Coe, OSHA’s regional administrator in Atlanta, Ga. “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.”
OSHA’s investigation revealed that this animal was one of three killer whales involved in the death of an animal trainer in 1991 at Sea Land of the Pacific in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. SeaWorld had forbidden trainers from swimming with this whale because of his dangerous past behavior, but allowed trainers to interact with the whale, including touching him, while lying on the pool edge in shallow water.
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.”
OSHA has issued one willful citation to SeaWorld for exposing its employees to struck-by and drowning hazards when interacting with killer whales; a serious citation for exposing employees to a fall hazard by failing to install a stairway railing system by a Shamu Stadium stage; and one other-than-serious violation for failing to equip outdoor electrical receptacles in Shamu Stadium with weatherproof enclosures.
SeaWorld to Contest Violations
SeaWorld called OSHA’s allegations “unfounded” and intends to contest the citation.
“The safety of our guests and employees and the welfare of our animals are core values for SeaWorld and areas in which we do not compromise,” the company said in an Aug. 23 statement sent to EHS Today.
According to SeaWorld, the Feb. 24 death of a trainer “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. 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.”
The company went on to state the OSHA’s allegations are unsupported by evidence and exhibit a lack of understanding of marine animal safety requirements. SeaWorld operates under permits to exhibit killer whales; is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the U.S. Department of Commerce National Marine Fisheries Service; and is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, which address employee safety in their accreditation processes.
“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. Our trainers are among the most skilled, trained and committed zoological professionals in the world today. The fact that there have been so few incidents over more than 2 million separate interactions with killer whales is evidence not just of SeaWorld’s commitment to safety, but to the success of that training and the skill and professionalism of our staff,” the company stated.