ORLANDO, Fla. - A federal judge believes SeaWorld had a duty to begin implementing new safety improvements required by workplace safety regulators last July, even while the theme park was fighting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in court.
Meanwhile, Local 6 has learned SeaWorld trainers continue to have extremely close physical contact with the killer whales, despite new OSHA requirements that trainers must remain behind a barrier when interacting with the animals during performances.
In 2010, SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled underwater and drowned by a killer whale following a performance at the Orlando theme park. OHSA inspectors later found SeaWorld to be in violation of several workplace safety regulations. A judge ordered the marine park to pay $12,000 in fines.
Last summer, an administrative judge ruled that OSHA can require SeaWorld to "install physical barriers between its trainers and killer whales" or "require its trainers to maintain a minimum distance from the killer whales." SeaWorld was required to abate those violations by July 27, 2012. On that same day, SeaWorld lawyers asked a judge to delay the implementation of those abatements, stating that it needed more time. A hearing on that matter is scheduled for later this month.
In a new court order issued last week relating to the OSHA matter, U.S. District Judge Roy B. Dalton, Jr. said "SeaWorld currently has a duty to abate in accordance with the original (July 2012) abatement deadline, and OSHA may act to enforce the required abatement."
Yet since July, Sea World trainers have continued to have close physical contact with killer whales. During Tuesday's 2:30 p.m. performance of "One Ocean" at Shamu Stadium, Local 6 cameras recorded SeaWorld trainers touching, petting and dancing alongside killer whales without any barriers separating them.
In one segment of the show, a trainer standing on a submerged ledge leans his entire body on the killer whale and rubs its back with both arms.
In October, OSHA conducted a re-inspection of Shamu Stadium to see if the theme park had corrected previous safety violations. OSHA investigators plan to interview several SeaWorld employees before completing its follow-up report. If the agency finds that SeaWorld is not in compliance with workplace safety regulations, it could potentially issue more fines.
SeaWorld officials insist they have taken numerous measures to ensure their employees' safety.
"We voluntarily instituted new and enhanced safety protocols immediately following the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau that are used in the One Ocean show," said SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs. " Those protocols are not at issue in our appeal, which is currently pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals DC Circuit."
According to court records, that appeal is currently on hold as attorneys from SeaWorld and OSHA negotiate a possible settlement. Neither side will comment on their discussions.
SeaWorld lawyers are scheduled to return to court in two weeks as they try to postpone the implementation of OSHA's safety requirements.
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