Federal Workplace Safety Officials Fine SeaWorld $75,000 For "Willful" Violation Following Trainer’s Death

Monday, August 23, 2010 at 10:29 a.m.

Federal workplace safety officials have fined SeaWorld $75,000 following an investigation into the death of a trainer at the company’s Orlando park six months ago.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a “willful” citation to SeaWorld for exposing its 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 officials said their investigation showed SeaWorld trainers had a long history of “unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents” involving killer whales, or orcas.  “Despite this record, management failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees,” the agency said in a statement.

SeaWorld has 15 days to contest the citations before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.  The company said in a blog post that it will challenge what it calls unfounded allegations.

Tilikum, a 12,000-pound male orca, killed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, in front of about two dozen spectators on Feb. 24, fueling a national debate about keeping the giant carnivores in captivity.

OSHA’s investigation said video footage shows the killer whale repeatedly striking and thrashing the trainer, and pulling her under water as she tried to escape. The autopsy report described the cause of death as drowning and traumatic injuries.

After Brancheau’s death, a theory emerged that Tilikum may have seen the trainer’s ponytail as a toy and pulled her into the tank. When the incident started, Brancheau was on a submerged shelf, patting and hugging the whale after a noon show.

The February fatality wasn’t the first that involved Tilikum. He was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer who fell into their pool 19 years ago in British Columbia.

Tilikum also was involved in a 1999 death, when the body of a man who had sneaked by SeaWorld Orlando security was found draped over him. The man either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water and died of hypothermia, although he also was bruised and scratched by Tilikum.

Killer whales have a history of aggressive behavior in captivity going back at least to 1971. That’s when a SeaWorld San Diego secretary riding the original Shamu for a publicity stunt suffered lacerations and puncture wounds when she was tossed into the water and seized by her legs.

Four years ago, SeaWorld San Diego trainer Ken Peters was bitten on the foot by Kasatka, a 5,000-pound female killer whale. Kasatka took Peters to the bottom of the tank twice during a performance, fracturing his left foot.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as CalOSHA, issued an 18-page report after that incident.

If you or a loved one has been injured by a defective product, contact the Defective Product lawyers of the Gomez Law Firm today.

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