Judge: SeaWorld Trying to Comply With Safety Goals

By MIKE SCHNEIDER | August 14, 2013

SeaWorld Orlando has made a good faith effort to comply with new workplace safety goals following the death of a trainer who was drowned by a killer whale in 2010, a judge said in an order obtained by The Associated Press on Monday.

Shamu_The_Killer_Whale_At_Seaw_8395216SeaWorld met a deadline to have new safety procedures in place that were recommended by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said the order written last week by Judge Ken Welsch, an administrative law judge.

Those measures include allowing trainers to only work with killer whales if there’s a physical barrier between them and creating a minimal distance between trainer and whale.

SeaWorld officials had asked for an extension so they could consult outside experts, but the request was denied by federal workplace safety officials.

Trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed in February 2010 when the six-ton killer whale, Tilikum, grabbed her and pulled into the water.

Separately, in another order written last week, Welsch said that SeaWorld couldn’t keep its new safety protocols a secret. SeaWorld officials had asked that the protocols on working with killer whales be kept sealed, saying they were proprietary business records.

But Welsch ruled against them, writing that members of the public who see SeaWorld’s killer whale shows will be able to figure them out. The judge said the protocols would remain sealed until a review of his ruling by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Last year, Welsch ruled that physical barriers between trainers and killer whales are a viable way to prevent hazards to workers at SeaWorld. He issued the order in response to Sea World Orlando’s appeal of two citations issued by OSHA for the death of Brancheau. He also reduced OSHA’s fine against SeaWorld Orlando to $12,000 from $75,000 and changed a “willful” citation to “serious.”

SeaWorld has appealed last year’s ruling to a federal appellate court in Washington, D.C. SeaWorld and federal work-safety officials are engaged in court-ordered mediation as part of SeaWorld’s appeal.

SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs said SeaWorld officials were “encouraged” by last week’s footnote in the order. It said SeaWorld isn’t limited to the minimal distance and physical barrier recommendations by OSHA if officials can come up with other methods to protect trainers interacting with whales.

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