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Federal hearing continues in workplace death of SeaWorld trainer

SeaWorld Orlando has been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for willfully endangering employees by failing to take proper safety precautions. The citation stemmed from the 2010 death of one of SeaWorld's killer whale trainers.

In February 2010, the 40-year-old female trainer was seated on the edge of the Shamu Stadium pool. A 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum pulled her into the pool, ultimately drowning her while park guests attending a private show watched in horror.

While under Florida law it is extremely difficult for workers at amusement parks to obtain workers' compensation benefits, the OSHA investigation and citation are not meant to compensate the victim's family. Instead, they are intended to determine whether SeaWorld knew or should have known that dangerous conditions were putting their trainers at risk of injury or death.

OSHA launched a lengthy investigation that ended in a "willful" citation against SeaWorld Orlando. According to a regional administrator with OSHA, SeaWorld recognized the inherent risk of allowing trainers to interact with potentially dangerous animals, but it still required employees to work on pool edges and shelves where they were exposed to potentially dangerous animal behaviors.

OSHA also pointed out that the whale in question was known to have aggressive tendencies. It had been involved in the death of a previous trainer in 1991 at a Vancouver marine park in British Colombia.

Nevertheless, no additional safety precautions were put in place, such as barriers, decking, or oxygen systems provided by SeaWorld for the safety of the trainers.

SeaWorld has issued a statement calling OSHA's citation baseless and unsupported by evidence or precedent. SeaWorld contends that OSHA's action reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of the safety requirements associated with marine mammal care.

SeaWorld is contesting the citation and a hearing began this week in front of an OSHA Review Committee. It is unclear whether footage of the trainer's death will be entered into evidence as part of the proceedings. The family of the trainer has worked to keep the video sealed.

Source: CNN, "Hearing begins in death of SeaWorld trainer," John Couwels, Sept. 20, 2011

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