In the nick of time for your family weekend outing to the theme park of your choice, we just got off the phone with David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health (a.k.a. OSHA), who has lately been issuing some strong words to the entertainment industry, which includes funplexes like Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld. Forget your own experiences with neck-snapping rollercoasters and hand-biting dolphins in the petting pond for a moment, and focus on the plight of amusement park workers. While we always sympathized with ride gatekeepers wilting outside in summer's high noon sun, OSHA had more serious reasons for taking a second look at conditions for these workers, as well as those in theaters and movie studios. "In recent months OSHA has seen the deaths of several workers in the entertainment industry, those deaths were caused by hazardous conditions," said Michaels. "It has become clear to us that hazardous conditions exist across the industry," he continued. Though he couldn't name names due to a pending investigations, we're guessing the recent death of Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer pulled underwater by a killer whale, made a big blip on the OSHA radar. Once the investigation is released, we'll be interested in whether Brancheau's death gets treated as a "willful violation" of worker safety, subject to the highest OSHA violation fine of $70,000. Michaels, again speaking generally, said such violations are based on reasonable employer knowledge that something is dangerous. We wondered if that knowledge could encompass previous similar circumstances. "Oh absolutely," said Michaels.
We asked because people like Naomi Rose at the Humane Society International and others in anti-animal captivity organizations have argued for years that previous fatal and severely injurious interactions between trainers and captive marine animals prove the behavior isn't a fluke. After SeaWorld San Diego trainer Kenneth Peters was dragged underwater by another killer whale in 2007, escaping with puncture wounds and a broken foot, the California division of OSHA issued a report stating it was "only a matter of time," before a fatality like Brancheau's occurred. The department later rewrote the report to "only stick to the facts," after engaging in two days of talks with SeaWorld management. Tilikum, the whale that dragged Brancheau, had been involved with two previous trainer fatalities. Last weekend, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals staged a protest outside of SeaWorld San Antonio highlighting, among other things, this very fact.
Whether SeaWorld gets cited for a "willful" OSHA violation, a more common violation carrying an up to $7,000 fine, or no violation at all, Michaels wants establishments like SeaWorld (and convention centers, theaters and amusement parks) to know OSHA has its good eye on them, and if Congress passes the Protecting America's Workers Act to increase penalties for OSHA violators, the entertainment industry will not be spared. "A human life is worth a lot more than $7,000," said Michaels. "You can quote me on that."