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SeaWorld trainers remain in close contact with whales

OSHA says trainers should be behind barriers

ORLANDO, Fla. – SeaWorld trainers continue to touch, pet and hug the theme park's killer whales despite a court order upholding a series of safety improvements mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

On Thursday, Local 6 cameras captured video of several SeaWorld trainers kneeling on the edge of the pool of Shamu Stadium and reaching out to touch killer whales. Another trainer stood next to a whale in ankle-deep water on a submerged ledge rubbing the whale's back. She eventually placed her entire body on top of the whale as she hugged the animal.

In May, an administrative law judge upheld citations against SeaWorld filed by OSHA, finding that the "proximity to the killer whales is the factor that determines the risk to the trainers."

The judge also determined that it was feasible for SeaWorld to "either install physical barriers between its trainers and killer whales, or require its trainers to maintain a minimum distance from the killer whales."

Although Administrative Law Judge Kenneth Welsch's ruling became final on July 16, on Thursday SeaWorld trainers were still standing and kneeling next to the whales while touching them, without any type of barrier to protect the employees.

"Physical contact and in-water interaction with these animals is a critical component of both husbandry and trainer safety," said SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs.

SeaWorld has asked the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. to review the ruling. The theme park operator has also asked the judge to modify the date OSHA's abatement proposals must take effect.

"We continue to work through the appeals process in the OSHA matter, seeking clarification of the government's proposed abatements and key parts of Judge Welsch's decision," said Jacobs.

A spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission said Welsch's original order remains in effect. He was unable to say Thursday whether SeaWorld may be violating that order by failing to implement OSHA's proposed abatements while the company awaits a ruling on their appeal.

OSHA fined SeaWorld for a series of safety violations after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, who was dragged underwater and drowned by a killer whale named Tilikum. SeaWorld first appealed those citations in 2011, arguing that workplace safety regulators were not qualified to determine proper marine mammal care. Judge Welsch ruled that OSHA had the authority to require SeaWorld to keep employees a safe distance away from their whales, unless SeaWorld could come up with a better procedure to keep its trainers safe.

OSHA's regulation only applies to performances in front of an audience. SeaWorld recently began introducing trainers back into the water during backstage husbandry procedures.