SeaWorld to Contest OSHA Penalty

August 24, 2010 ( - The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Monday cited SeaWorld of Florida LLC for three safety violations, including one classified as willful, following the death of an animal trainer in February, and assessed a penalty of $75,000.

That same day SeaWorld issued a statement saying it disagrees with the allegations made by OSHA and has informed the agency that it will contest the citation. SeaWorld said OSHA’s allegations are unsupported by any evidence or precedent and reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the safety requirements associated with marine mammal care. 

On February 24, a six-ton killer whale grabbed trainer Dawn Brancheau and pulled her under the water during what SeaWorld describes as a “relationship session,” which was also observed by park guests. Video footage shows the killer whale repeatedly striking and thrashing the trainer, and pulling her underwater even as she attempted to escape. The autopsy report describes the cause of death as drowning and traumatic injuries.

According to an OSHA news release, its 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 the trainers were 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, OSHA said, management failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees.

OSHA issued one willful citation to SeaWorld for exposing its employees to struck-by and drowning hazards when interacting with killer whales. A serious citation was issued 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. One other-than-serious violation was issued for failing to equip outdoor electrical receptacles in Shamu Stadium with weatherproof enclosures.   

In its statement, SeaWorld said the February accident inspired an internal review of its whale program “that has been unprecedented in scope.” The findings of that review were presented to an independent committee made up of some of the world’s most respected marine mammal experts, and 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 statement said.  

SeaWorld said its trainers are among the most skilled, trained and committed zoological professionals in the world, and the fact that there have been so few incidents over more than two million separate interactions with killer whales is evidence of the company’s commitment to safety, as well as the success of the training, skill and professionalism of its staff.  

Since the accident, SeaWorld trainers have been caring for the whales out of the water, and will remain out of the water while SeaWorld finalizes and implements the measures that have progressed from the review.