Last week, the Associated Press reported on the latest development in a long battle between SeaWorld Orlando and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), stemming from the 2010 death of a trainer drowned by one of the park’s killer whales.
In the recent ruling, an administrative law judge determined that SeaWorld had made a “good faith effort” to comply with new workplace safety goals, including implementing safety procedures that require trainers to have a physical barrier and a minimal distance between them and the orcas. In a separate order, however, the judge ruled that SeaWorld cannot keep the new safety protocols a secret, as company officials had requested.
This development, however, represents just a small sliver of the judicial ping-pong match. Here’s a look back:
Timeline of OSHA’s investigations into SeaWorld
- Following the February 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, an investigation by OSHA found that the whale had been involved in another trainer death in 1991 in Canada. OSHA cited SeaWorld for three safety violations, including one classified as “willful” – for “exposing its employees to struck-by and drowning hazards when interacting with killer whales.”
Trainers had been prohibited from swimming with the whale due to its behavior, but not from interacting with it while lying in shallow water on the pool edge, as Brancheau was doing when the killer whale dragged her into the water by her ponytail.
In addition, the investigation found “SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales,” yet “management failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees.” The agency charged SeaWorld with a $75,000 penalty.
- SeaWorld contested OSHA’s violations and penalties, and in June 2012, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission ruled in favor of OSHA but reduced the fine to $12,000. SeaWorld immediately filed a petition requesting a six-month extension on their deadline – scheduled for July 27, 2012 – to implement the safety improvements.
- On Sept. 7, 2012, SeaWorld requested an appeal on the federal ruling, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, asking for a review of the decision. The company stated OSHA’s general duty clause was not applicable to the interactions between whales and humans, and that OSHA did not have the expertise in marine mammal care to determine requirements for safe interactions between trainers and killer whales.
- On December 18, 2012, OSHA requested a subpoena, stating that SeaWorld declined to provide three employees to be interviewed during a follow-up inspection, in order to determine if the hazards had been abated.
On the same day, according to Department of Labor documents, OSHA and SeaWorld entered into a “voluntary mediation program” in order to work out new safety guidelines.
- In April 2013, SeaWorld took OSHA to court to retroactively seek the six-month extension on its required abatement program.
- In June 2013, OSHA issued a $38,500 fine for repeat safety violations found during its December 2012 inspection.
- In July 2013, SeaWorld moved forward in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C., contesting OSHA’s original violations. According to the Orlando Sentinel, mediation talks have broken down between SeaWorld and OSHA, and SeaWorld has hired Washington D.C. attorney Eugene Scalia, a former Department of Labor solicitor and the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, to represent the company.