Physical barriers between trainers and killer whales are a viable way to prevent hazards to workers at SeaWorld, an administrative law judge ruled in a decision that also reduced a federal fine against the theme park in a trainer's death.
Administrative law Judge Ken Welsch issued the decision obtained by The Associated Press Wednesday in response to Sea World Orlando's appeal of two citations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the death of 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 also said prohibiting trainers from swimming with killer whales during performances would reduce the risks inherent in working with the animals.
"There are no known cases of killer whales killing humans in the wild," Welsch wrote. "As far as the court can tell, all known injuries to humans have occurred from interactions with killer whales in pools."
SeaWorld had said its safety protocols were sufficient to protect trainers. The judge said that while the theme park's safety training program was highly detailed and intensive, "it cannot remove the element of unpredictability inherent in working with killer whales."
The order could prevent trainers from performing with the whales in the water during shows, a move SeaWorld and its trainers have opposed.
"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, said SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs.
The judge also reduced OSHA's fine against SeaWorld Orlando to $12,000 from $75,000 and changed a "willful" citation to "serious." A "willful" violation indicates an employer acted with intentional disregard or indifference, and that wasn't the case with SeaWorld, the judge wrote.
"The record demonstrates SeaWorld constantly emphasized safety training and was continuously refining its safety program," Welsch said.
Brancheau, a 40-year-old veteran trainer who adored whales, had just finished a show on Feb. 24, 2010, when she began rubbing a 22-foot 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 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.
SeaWorld is owned by private equity firm Blackstone Group LP.