JUDGE UPHOLDS OSHA CITATION AGAINST SEAWORLD
WDCS applauds the long-awaited verdict from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) vs. SeaWorld hearing that concluded last November where SeaWorld contested the ‘willful’ citation issued by OSHA in response to the February 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. Although the judge’s verdict, released late Wednesday afternoon, downlists the category of the violation and associated fine from ‘willful’ to ‘serious,’ it upholds the original citation against SeaWorld issued in August 2010, and requires the outlined safety measures be implemented within 10 days of the verdict becoming final. This could mean a permanent end to trainers ever working in the water with orcas again.
WDCS applauds the diligent efforts of the investigators and attorneys that have persevered against SeaWorld’s fraudulent claims that close interaction with orcas is both safe and predictable. More importantly, the OSHA team has successfully revealed the truth behind orcas in captivity that may forever change how orcas in captivity are viewed not only by regulatory authorities concerned with worker safety, but by the general public concerned with the ethics of keeping killer whales in captivity.
WDCS has anxiously awaited this decision, hoping for a day of reckoning for the many lives lost to captivity, both human and orca, and is heartened by Judge Welsch’s verdict upholding the original intent and seriousness of OSHA’s citations and required abatement measures. We commend OSHA for seeking and exposing the truths behind the safety of the orca programs at SeaWorld, especially considering of the long history of injuries and accidents that preceded Dawn Brancheau’s unfortunate death.
Two important issues addressed by the verdict and contested at the hearing included whether SeaWorld was aware of the risks and hazards associated with in-water work with orcas at their park and ‘drywork’ interactions with Tilikum; and whether the abatement measures recommended by OSHA in its citation were a feasible means of reducing these hazards. The judge ruled affirmatively on both counts, supporting OSHA’s original citation requiring physical barriers between Tilikum and trainers during drywork sessions, and prohibiting water work with all other killer whales unless protected by physical barriers or decking systems that provide a similar level of protection. According to SeaWorld, trainer Dawn Brancheau was engaged in unprotected ‘drywork’ with Tilikum when she was killed, and although in-water work was never allowed with Tilikum, it was allowed with other killer whales at their parks.
During the hearing which WDCS attended, SeaWorld made every attempt to avoid responsibility, downplaying the hundreds of incidents and injuries involving trainers and killer whales, and faulting trainer error for mistakes that SeaWorld claimed were avoidable in what they insist is a very predictable and controlled environment.
While a judgment has been issued, we still may have a ways to go before this battle is over. SeaWorld can choose to appeal this decision to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Review Commission and thereafter to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Similarly, OSHA could also request the case be reviewed by the Commission to challenge the downlisting of the citation. In addition, the judgment applies only to SeaWorld Florida, and how both SeaWorld and OSHA respond to the verdict will be seen.
Skepticism has been leveled at SeaWorld’s proposed safety measures to protect trainers interacting with orcas, such as spare air and lift-bottom pool floors, which are reported to be practically unworkable but are currently being installed at SeaWorld’s Orlando location. It is doubtful that these measures will be deemed adequate by OSHA, and this ruling could be the end of in-water performances with orcas at all SeaWorld parks.
“SeaWorld refuses to acknowledge that it might be captivity that is the problem, rather than their inability to manufacture a controlled environment for these orcas,” stated Courtney Vail, campaigns manager for WDCS. “They are missing the point completely if they think they can eliminate the risks associated with an artificial and stressful environment. Captivity is a depravity, and until this is recognized, SeaWorld will be fighting a losing battle. Spare air and lift-bottom floors will never protect a trainer from the speed and intensity of an orca attack. I think the public is catching on, and after this verdict, they are in a better position to make a choice in the best interest of trainers and orcas.”
The tragic death of Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld after she was pulled into the water in front of spectators by a large male captive orca, Tilikum, took the world by storm. Although shocked by Ms. Brancheau’s death, WDCS was not surprised and believes the incident, the third to have involved Tilikum in the death of a human, to be the result of the unsuitable confinement of these large, intelligent, and highly sociable species in captivity.
WDCS is calling for much stricter regulation and governmental oversight of the captivity industry in the United States and elsewhere and campaigns against capture, trade and confinement of all whales, dolphins and porpoises. Their physical, social and mental needs cannot be met in captivity and the public display industry is a threat to populations in the wild that are targeted by live capture operations used to supply dolphin display and swim-with programs worldwide.