The issue of workplace safety — or lack thereof — at SeaWorld made headlines in 2010, when a 20-foot orca (the black-and-white aquatic mammal also called the “killer whale”) dragged a trainer underwater and drowned her.
The story was put to film in the 2013 movie Blackfish, which the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) described as follows: “Notorious killer whale Tilikum is responsible for the deaths of three individuals, including a top killer whale trainer. Blackfish shows the sometimes devastating consequences of keeping such intelligent and sentient creatures in captivity.”
And just this month, a D.C. Circuit Court ruled that as a result of that 2010 drowning and other incidents, SeaWorld must pay fines and implement certain safety standards, since it exposed its human employees to “recognized hazards.”
Not surprisingly, SeaWorld took issue with the ruling.
"Following the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010, we voluntarily deployed several new safety measures, including removing trainers from the water during shows," the company said in a statement. "SeaWorld remains committed to providing a safe workplace for employees, healthy environments for the animals in our care, and inspirational and educational experiences with killer whales for our guests. We are still reviewing the opinion and no decision has been made on whether we will appeal."
Courthouse News Service reported the ruling on April 14, and noted that, after the 2010 on-the-job drowning of an orca trainer, “the Occupational Safety and Health Commission (OSHA) found that SeaWorld violated work-safety standards by exposing orca trainers to recognized hazards of drowning or injury as a result of their close contact with killer whales during performances.”
Though this presumably would not surprise anyone who's actually worked at SeaWorld. Last month, on March 19, the comedy-educational website Cracked.com published the article “6 awful realities behind the scenes at Sea World,” written by a former Sea World employee.
Some of those “awful realities” are unavoidable, given the nature of the business: if you spend all day working outdoors under the Florida sun, your skin will be sun-damaged. Spend all day working with animals, and you must also work around their [oft-disgusting] biological functions.
But some of those “awful realities” refer to the same workplace-safety issues addressed in court:
SeaWorld is an entertainment industry, and as such, hiring is every bit as soulless as casting a reality show. The fact that I screwed up the interview process (and boy, did I ever) didn't end up mattering because I looked the part, and my personality seemed marketable. One senior trainer I spoke to explained that she had never trained an animal before: She got the job not because of her expertise, but because she looked good in a wetsuit and was dating a trainer.
Don't believe me? Go look up pictures of SeaWorld right now. Spot any ugly orca trainers? No? Only beautiful people spend their lives studying oceanic sciences and marine biology?
In its court case, SeaWorld tried defending itself with an argument which basically boiled down to “Those trainers knew what they were getting into,” but Judge Judith Rogers, writing the 35-page court decision, rejected that argument: “SeaWorld's suggestion that because trainers 'formally accepted and controlled their own exposure to ... risks,' the hazard of close contact with killer whales cannot be recognized, contravenes Congress's decision to place the duty to ensure a safe and healthy workplace on the employer, not the employee.”