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August 23. 2010

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced today that, after an investigation into the death of animal trainer Dawn Brancheau in February this year, it is citing SeaWorld of Florida LLC for three safety violations and fining the theme park company $75,000.

On February 24, 2010, Dawn Brancheau interacted with a killer whale named Tilikum on platform of shallow water during what SeaWorld describes as a "relationship session" observed by park guests. According to an Associated Press article, Brancheau lay on her stomach on the platform, nose to nose with the six-ton killer whale when to the horror of spectators; Tilikum grabbed Brancheau by her ponytail, dragged her underwater and shook her repeatedly like a ragdoll. Video footage shows the killer whale repeatedly striking and thrashing the trainer, and pulling her under water even as she attempted to escape.

It took rescuers more than 30 chaotic minutes to get Brancheau away from Tilikum. They captured Tilikum in a net and had to pry his mouth open to extract Brancheau’s body. The autopsy report describes her cause of death as drowning and traumatic injuries.

OSHA’s investigation found that this is not the first time Tilikum has killed a person, revealing that he 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. He also killed a man who sneaked into his pool enclosure in 1999.

Linda Simons, former Sea World safety director, told ABC News that SeaWorld gave new employees at SeaWorld a warning about Tilikum. "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."

SeaWorld says they fired Simons for poor performance, but Simons told The New York Daily News that the company fired her for cooperating with the OSHA investigation.

Because of Tilikum’s dangerous behavior, SeaWorld had forbidden trainers from swimming with the whale, but allowed trainers to interact with him, including touching him, while the trainers were lying on the pool edge in shallow water.

"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."

The OSHA investigation also found 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, FL. "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. The agency defines a willful violation as one committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health.
  • OSHA issued a serious citation to SeaWorld for exposing employees to a fall hazard by failing to install a stairway railing system on the front side, left bridge of the "Believe" stage in Shamu Stadium. OSHA issues a serious citation when death or serious physical harm is likely to result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.
  • OSHA gave SeaWorld one other-than-serious violation for failing to equip outdoor electrical receptacles in Shamu Stadium with weatherproof enclosures. An other-than-serious violation is described as a situation that relates to job safety and health that would not likely cause death or serious physical harm.

“SeaWorld disagrees with the unfounded allegations made by OSHA today and have already informed the agency that we will contest this citation,” SeaWorld said in a 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. We look forward to challenging OSHA’s unfounded allegations and are confident that we will prevail.”

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