Since administrative law judge Ken Welsch last May upheld OSHA’s citations against SeaWorld’s killer whale practices (full ruling is here), SeaWorld has been under obligation to “abate” the hazards OSHA identified: namely the danger of working in close proximity to killer whales.
In essence, OSHA’s citations combined and Welsch’s ruling (which applies to shows), mean that SeaWorld cannot have trainers swimming with the killer whales (aka waterwork), and even when the trainers are out on the pool decks they are supposed to maintain a minimum separation or have some sort of barrier between them and the killer whales.
SeaWorld has decided to take its appeal of the OSHA citations to the federal courts, but in the meantime SeaWorld has been negotiating with OSHA over when and how it must come into compliance with the citations. Since Judge Welsch’s order went into effect, SeaWorld has been asking for more time to figure out how it wants to abate the dangers OSHA cited, and has filed a Petition For Modification Of Abatement. OSHA has taken the position that SeaWorld should already be in compliance, so a new hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 15-17 in Judge Welsch’s court to hear testimony on the timing and method of abatement.
I’ve always thought that SeaWorld would like to be able to submit its fast-rising pool floors, and spare air systems (among other possible innovations) as safety modifications that abate the danger OSHA cited. That would allow trainers to get back into the pool during shows, and perform the waterwork that SeaWorld is famous for. I don’t know if this is the venue where SeaWorld will try to make that case, but it will be worth watching to see.
For its part, OSHA believes SeaWorld has been violating the citations during shows by not maintaining minimum separation and continuing to have trainers hug and touch the whales from the slideouts and pool decks without any protective barriers between them and the whales (OSHA also believes SeaWorld did not properly abate another citation regarding a stair railing). If SeaWorld is hit with two new failure to abate citations they could be looking at penalties of up to $7,000 a day for up to 30 days. That won’t break the SeaWorld bank, but it’s not small change, either.
So stand by for another court confrontation in the winter heat of Florida. Depending on what Judge Welsch decides, the federal appeal may be SeaWorld’s last chance to preserve the possibility of waterwork during killer whale shows at its parks.