SeaWorld Fights OSHA Findings in Trainer’s Death

By MIKE SCHNEIDER | September 20, 2011

SeaWorld Orlando is fighting $75,000 in penalties from a federal job safety agency following last year’s death of a trainer who was grabbed by a killer whale and dragged under water.

A hearing is set for Monday before an administrative judge in the Orlando suburb of Sanford. SeaWorld is expected to argue that three safety citations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after an investigation into trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death last year are unfounded.

“These allegations are completely baseless, unsupported by any evidence or precedent and reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the safety requirements associated with marine mammal care,” said SeaWorld spokeswoman Becca Bides. “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.”

Animal rights activists planned to protest the hearing with signs saying “Throw the Book at SeaWorld!” and “Stop Imprisoning Orcas!”

“The company goes on making money at the expense of animals and its employees,” said Ingrid Newkirk, president of the animal rights group PETA, in a statement.

Brancheau died Feb. 24, 2010, when a killer whale named Tilikum grabbed her by the pony tail as she kneeled on the deck to interact with him after a performance. The six-ton animal dragged her underwater violently. The medical examiner said she died of drowning and traumatic injuries.

OSHA will be allowed to present videos and images of Brancheau’s death from SeaWorld cameras. U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell last week denied a request from Brancheau’s family to stop OSHA from showing them at the hearing because of privacy concerns.

In their court filing, Brancheau’s husband, parents and sister called the videos “shocking and disturbing.”

“The content at issue is the most intrusive imaginable because family members would be barraged with a widespread and repeated depiction of Dawn’s gruesome and traumatic death,” the filing said.

The first of the three citations by OSHA claimed SeaWorld exposed its workers to drowning hazards and the chance of being struck during interactions with killer whales because trainers had unprotected contact with the marine animals. The federal agency noted in the citation that Tilikum also was involved in the death of a trainer at a marine park in British Columbia in 1991. The agency recommended putting physical barriers between trainers and killer whales.

The second citation said SeaWorld failed to install a stairway railing system on the stage in Shamu Stadium where the killer whale show, “Believe,” took place. The citation said a section of the stage without a railing had a 10-foot drop.

A third citation said SeaWorld failed to equip outdoor electrical receptacles in Shamu Stadium with weatherproof enclosures.

Both sides have to file written arguments to the judge within 10 days after the hearing, and the judge likely will rule sometime after that, said Melik Ahmir-abdul, a spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission in Washington.

If the judge rules against SeaWorld, the theme park resort has the option of appealing to the commission.

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