Administrative Law Judge Kenneth Welsch released his decision in SeaWorld’s appeal of OSHA’s 2010 citations regarding the safety of SeaWorld’s killer whale program.
It’s a doozy, and I’ve got my take posted over at Outside Online. Here’s the intro:
A decision released yesterday by Administrative Law Judge Kenneth Welsch in Florida will fundamentally change SeaWorld’s killer whale shows. In a landmark case, Judge Welsch ruled in favor of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), concluding that the only way to keep Seaworld trainers safe is to either keep them away from close contact with the killer whales (which means no waterwork in the pools with them during shows), or to use physical barriers or other safety modifications to provide the same level of protection. Unless SeaWorld appeals Welsch’s ruling and manages to win, the Shamu Shows as we know them likely just came to an end.
OSHA’s case was prompted by the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who, on February 24, 2010, was pulled into the water and brutally killed by SeaWorld’s largest killer whale, a male called Tilikum who weighs about 12,000 pounds. After Brancheau’s death, OSHA took a hard look at the safety of SeaWorld’s killer whale training methods and high-intensity killer whale shows, which feature trainers swimming with, riding, and leaping off whales. Following a detailed investigation, OSHA hit SeaWorld with a series of safety citations, the most serious of which said SeaWorld knowingly exposed killer whale trainers to being struck or drowned by killer whales when it had them work closely with Tilikum and other killer whales. The only way to abate the dangers, OSHA said, was to either stop working in close contact with the killer whales, or keep physical barriers (or equivalent measures) between trainers and killer whales. In short, OSHA said that SeaWorld’s killer whale program was dangerous and needed radical changes.
SeaWorld hotly contested OSHA’s conclusions, which it called “unfounded,” and launched an appeal. After a series of hearings that took place last fall, Judge Welsch issued his ruling this week. The verdict: OSHA’s conclusions stand. In his decision (available here), Welsch systematically picked apart SeaWorld’s arguments that its training methods, and ability to predict dangerous or aggressive killer whale behavior, are protection enough for trainers.
Welsch reduced the nature of the OSHA’s citation from “willful” (the most severe) to “serious,” and reduced Seaworld’s fine for the critical citation from $70,000 to $7,000. Then he set about sytematically dismantling SeaWorld’s arguments. Read the whole thing…
Bonus: Here’s a video, shot by a Shamu Stadium audience member, which shows SeaWorld raising the fast-rising floor in the Orlando G Pool. This floor design is one of the innovations that SeaWorld is developing, and could be used to try and convince OSHA that it is safe to put trainers back in the water. The challenge is that such measures have to provide an equal or better level of protection for trainers than simply keeping them away from close contact with killer whales. And that’s a pretty hard case to make.