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A whale of a problem: Court recommends Sea World safety barriers

Children throughout North Carolina are generally spell-bound by Shamu, the moniker given to many of Sea World's stunt-performing killer whales. While thousands enjoy the shows put on at the amusement parks each year, real dangers exist for the employees who are commissioned to train and handle the aquatic beasts.

Most recently, a federal administrative law judge ruled that Sea World should install more safety measures to protect their employees from a fatal or serious injury resulting from a whale attack. The decision came in response to Sea World's decision to appeal citations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in response to the 2010 death of a trainer.

Sea World's workplace safety fines will be reduced in conjunction with the recommendation that additional safety barriers be installed to protect workers, according to the judge's decision. Company officials indicated that the request to install safety barriers was reasonable.

Despite their apparent willingness to comply with the judge's decision, Sea World management insists that there is nothing more they can do to improve the training and safety programs already in place. They indicate that there is a certain amount of "unpredictability" associated with killer whales that no one can accommodate.

At this point, reports show that killer whales have only fatally injured humans while in captivity, while no records of fatal attacks in the wild exist.

As is the case with a number of other occupations, training killer whales carries risks. However, that does not mean that employers do not have an obligation to protect their employees as much as possible. This fact also does not mean that employees in higher-risk occupations are exempt from the benefit of workers' compensation if they are injured on the job.

Going forward, Sea World management should do everything possible to prevent against animal attacks. Yet the company should also be prepared to provide assistance to their employees and their families in the event that a workplace accident occurs.

Source: The Huffington Post, "Judge says barriers should be used at SeaWorld," Mike Schneider, May 31, 2012

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