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Interpretation of OSHA clause focus of SeaWorld appeal

It’s hard to believe that it has been nearly three years since the SeaWorld trainer was killed on-the-job during a routine performance. The news of the death spread across the country, especially after an OSHA investigation revealed multiple safety violations. But the national theme park conglomerate appealed the citations and the case is now in front of the US Court of Appeals.

For workers in Colorado, the decision made in this case could affect the way that OSHA interprets the general duty clause when a work accident or workplace death occurs. Often referred to as the “catch-all” clause, SeaWorld is claiming that the clause is too broad.

If the original decision is upheld, SeaWorld would have to make major adjustments to the way that the trainers interact with the animals. Children and adults alike are attracted to the performances because of the direct interaction between the trainers and orcas. But there has always been a known danger with working that closely with killer whales.

While the appeal will not go before the judges until mid-November, it raises some interesting concerns regarding jobs that are considered dangerous. In order use the general duty clause, OSHA has to prove that there is “a ‘recognized’ hazard when there are not clear industry standards.” But in situations where the general duty clause applies, where is the balance between workplace safety and providing a promised product or attraction?

Taking a step back, what about other jobs that are considered dangerous? People jump at the opportunity to take a job doing what they love, even there is a risk of injury or even death. Should OSHA have a more prominent role in enforcing safety regulations in cases like this? If not, should employers be required to provide additional benefits or compensation if a worker is hurt or killed?

Source: Reuters, “SeaWorld appeal could force taming of its popular orca shows after trainer’s death,” Carlyn Kolker, Oct. 29, 2013.

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