Terrors from the OSHA: How SeaWorld’s Working Conditions Pose a Whale of a Problem for Their Employees

By: Dominic Delorantis

Picture this: you go into work, grab a cup of coffee, arrive at your desk, and your arm gets ripped off by a killer whale. That is the reality SeaWorld trainers face every day when they go into work. In 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a trainer at SeaWorld, was killed while working with a whale during a “relationship session” after the whale dragged her into the tank and repeatedly struck and thrashed her.[1] This highly publicized incident came after a slew of deaths and injuries stemming from the unsafe working conditions at SeaWorld.[2] However, unlike the mammals at SeaWorld, the OSHA violations for these unsafe working conditions have no bite.

OSHA has cited SeaWorld numerous times for the hazardous working conditions they subject their trainers to, most notably after the 2010 incident, which OSHA classified as a “willful” violation.[3] Although the penalties for these violations have been as high as $75,000[4], they have made no waves in terms of deterring SeaWorld from continuing to do everything they can to churn a profit at the expense of their employees.[5]

In an investigation of the 2010 incident, OSHA found that SeaWorld had been exposing trainers to “recognized hazards of drowning or injury” during performances due to the proximity of the whales to the trainers.[6] Since then, SeaWorld claims they have implemented increased safety measures for their trainers by removing them from the water during shows.[7] However, not only has SeaWorld failed to enforce these measures, but multiple sources reveal that they still allow their trainers to make close contact with the whales, and in some instances even continue to ride and swim with them.[8]

In addition to failing to remedy their unsafe working conditions, SeaWorld has failed to furnish their trainers with adequate incident reports which aid in their ability to understand the marine mammals they are working with and safely perform their job.[9] When questioned by the Department of Labor about why their corporate incident reports failed to catalogue all occurrences of whale aggression, all SeaWorld official Chuck Tompkins had to say was “we missed a few.”[10] Tompkins also stated that SeaWorld does not “reevaluate its protocols after an injury or death because it deems the injuries that occur ‘a result of human error’ and insisted that revising safety protocols is unnecessary.”[11] This flippant attitude toward creating safe working conditions is alarming, not only because of the blatant disregard for the safety of their trainers, but because it shows the ineffectiveness of OSHA in making SeaWorld comply with safety regulations.

The public outcry for both the mistreatment of the whales and their trainers has sparked a cultural movement ranging from the documentary Blackfish to the removal of Mattel’s “SeaWorld Trainer Barbie” from their lineup,[12] costing SeaWorld an estimated $82.5 million drop in revenue since 2013.[13] The tides are turning and it is clear that greater efforts must be made to protect SeaWorld employees by preserving their right to a safe working environment. The public has smelled blood in the water when it comes to exposing the practices of SeaWorld and it is high time the Department of Labor does, too.

[1] U.S. Dep’t of Labor, U.S. Labor Department’s OSHA cites SeaWorld of Florida following animal trainer’s death, Osha (Aug. 23, 2010), https://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=NEWS_RELEASES&p_id=18207.

[2] SeaWorld’s corporate incident log details reports of over 100 incidents of injuries and death caused by whale aggression. From Inside the SeaWorld Hearings: Part 2, (Sept. 21, 2011), Peta http://www.peta.org/blog/seaworld-vs-secretary-labor-part-two/.

[3] OSHA classifies “willful” violations as a violation “committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health.” U.S. Dep’t of Labor, U.S. Labor Department’s OSHA cites SeaWorld of Florida following animal trainer’s death, supra note 1.

[4] Id.

[5] “Three years after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at the Orlando theme park, SeaWorld has been fined $38,500 and labeled a repeat offender for continuing to employ trainers in unsafe working conditions.” Danielle Hanna, SeaWorld Fined for Killer Conditions, Global Animal (June 18, 2013), http://www.globalanimal.org/2013/06/18/seaworld-fined-for-killer-conditions/.; In April 2015, SeaWorld was fined $25,770 for four separate OSHA violations relating to hazardous working conditions. Tony Perry, Cal/OSHA cites SeaWorld San Diego for safety violations; park vows to appeal, L.A. Times (April 30, 2015, 8:52 PM), http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-seaworld-citations-20150430-story.html.

[6] Jack Bouboushian, SeaWorld Must Pay for Risks to Orca Trainers, Courthouse News (April 14, 2014, 5:51 AM), http://www.courthousenews.com/2014/04/14/67057.htm.

[7] Jennifer Abel, Court rules against SeaWorld in whale-training case, Consumer Affairs (April 15, 2014), http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news/court-rules-against-seaworld-in-whale-training-case-041514.html.

[8] Id.; Perry, Cal/OSHA cites SeaWorld San Diego for safety violations; park vows to appeal, supra note 5.

[9] Jason Garcia, Not all whale aggression made it into SeaWorld’s incident log, lawyers say, Orlando Sentinel (Sept. 22, 2011), http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2011-09-22/business/os-seaworld-osha-whale-aggression-20110921_1_dawn-brancheau-seaworld-trainers-loro-parque.

[10] Id.

[11] Ingrid Newkirk, Deaths at SeaWorld May Soon Include Its Own, Huffington Post (Nov. 28, 2011, 5:12 AM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ingrid-newkirk/seaworld-san-diego_b_985566.html.

[12] Ben Popken, Mattel Dumps ‘SeaWorld Trainer Barbie’ After Animal Rights Backlash, NBC News (Apr. 25, 2015, 11:41 AM), http://www.nbcnews.com/business/consumer/mattel-pulls-seaworld-trainer-barbie-after-animal-rights-backlash-n347756.

[13] Michael Miller, SeaWorld fined for improperly protecting employees from killer whales, Washington Post (May 1, 2015), http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/05/01/seaworld-fined-for-improperly-protecting-employees-from-killer-whales/.

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