Physical barriers between trainers and killer whales are a viable way to prevent hazards to workers at SeaWorld theme park in Florida, an administrative law judge has ruled.
The ruling by Judge Ken Welsch also reduced a federal fine against the theme park over a trainer’s death.
The decision was in response to SeaWorld Orlando’s appeal against two citations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
He said OSHA’s recommendation that SeaWorld use the barriers to protect trainers working with killer whales was “feasible”.
The judge wrote: “SeaWorld’s contention that it was unaware working with killer whales presents a recognised hazard is difficult to reconcile with numerous comments made over the years by SeaWorld management personnel.”
SeaWorld had said its safety protocols were sufficient to protect trainers. The order could prevent trainers from performing with killer whales in the water during shows, a move SeaWorld and its trainers have opposed.
SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs said: “There’s not an awful lot we’re going to be able to say about the training, at least beyond the general contours of it, until we have reviewed the decision.”
The judge also reduced OSHA’s fine against SeaWorld Orlando from 75,000 to 12,000 US dollars, and changed a “wilful” citation to “serious”. A “wilful” violation indicates an employer acted with intentional disregard or indifference, and that was not the case with SeaWorld, the judge wrote.
“The record demonstrates SeaWorld constantly emphasised safety training and was continuously refining its safety programme,” he said.
Ms Brancheau, a 40-year-old veteran trainer who adored whales, had just finished a show on February 24, 2010, when she began rubbing a 22ft male whale named Tilikum from a poolside platform. He suddenly grabbed her ponytail in his jaws and pulled her in. Witnesses said the whale played with Ms Brancheau like a toy.
An autopsy showed she died of drowning and blunt-force trauma to her head, neck and torso.
Tilikum also was involved in the death of a trainer at a marine park in British Columbia in 1991.
In a separate incident, the body of a man who had sneaked into SeaWorld was found draped over Tilikum in 1999. The man either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water and died of hypothermia, though he was also bruised and scratched by Tilikum.