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SeaWorld fined for improperly protecting employees from killer whales

In this handout photo provided by Sea World, a trainer wears an inflatable safety vest, Monday, April 28, 2014, in Orlando, Fla., whenever she works near the killer whales.  (AP Photo/Sea World)

It was a trick they had practiced hundreds of times. Ken Peters gave Kasatka the killer whale a kiss. Then the SeaWorld San Diego trainer dove into the giant pool and prepared to be triumphantly lifted out of the water on the whale’s nose.

But when Peters’s bald head broke the surface, it was clear something was wrong. The trainer tried to stand but, as the crowd clapped, he started to flail wildly. Kasatka had bitten the man’s foot. As confused audience members looked on, the killer whale suddenly dove deep into the pool, pulling Peters with it. For more than eight minutes, the trainer would fight for air and for his life. When Kasatka finally released him, Peters swam frantically for the edge of the pool, then scrambled away from the edge in terror and laid down, exhausted, as emergency workers examined his wounds.

The near drowning occurred in 2006, four years before Dawn Brancheau would die at SeaWorld’s sister park in Orlando — an incident made infamous by the 2013 documentary “Blackfish.” After the two orca attacks, SeaWorld changed its show routines and installed new safety features at both parks, including fast-rising pool floors and emergency air systems to protect the lives of its trainers.

But the changes weren’t enough for authorities. On Wednesday, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (CAL/OSHA) cited and fined SeaWorld Sand Diego for failing to properly protect its employees from killer whales.

According to U-T San Diego, OSHA fined the aquatic amusement park $25,770 for four safety violations, two of which stemmed from its handling of orcas. OSHA “specifically called out SeaWorld for not having procedures to protect employees and supervisors who ‘rode on the killer whales and swam with killer whales in the medical pool’ and ‘who were present on the slide outs with killer whales in various pools,'” UT-San Diego reported.

SeaWorld, which last month lost a longstanding legal battle with OSHA over Brancheau’s death, promised to appeal.

“There is no higher priority for SeaWorld than the safety of guests and team members and the welfare of our animals,” the park said. “The citations issued by Cal/OSHA today were not precipitated by any workplace incident, accident or injury, and they reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the requirements of safely caring for killer whales in a zoological setting.”

A spokeswoman for Cal/OSHA said its investigation was spurred by a recent complaint, but did not say whether the person who filed it was a SeaWorld employee or a park visitor.

“All employers are required to have a safety plan that looks at all of the jobs and duties, looks at any hazards related to those duties and takes the appropriate steps, whether it’s specific work practices or protective equipment in order to keep employees safe on the job because the goal is to have people go home safe and sound,” Erika Monterroza said.

In its report, Cal/OSHA criticized SeaWorld for requiring trainers to sign confidentiality agreements that discouraged them from raising safety concerns for “fear of reprisal,” according to UT-San Diego. The park did not have a plan for responding to “imminent hazards” requiring an evacuation, the report also found.

While the fines are small for a company that pulled in roughly $1.4 billion last year, they add to a troubling trend for SeaWorld. Thanks, in part, to the negative publicity surrounding “Blackfish,” attendance at SeaWorld parks was down by one million last year compared to 2013. Revenues dropped by $82.5 million over that time period. SeaWorld stocks also took a severe tumble.

The company has tried to fight back by emphasizing safety improvements and by attacking its critics, including a former trainer caught on video delivering a racist tirade.

But problems keep lapping up on SeaWorld’s shores. In February, a beloved beluga whale died while on loan to SeaWorld Orlando. A few days later, that same park announced it would no longer let kids feed dolphins. (In 2012, an 8-year-old girl was bitten after paying $7 to feed the aquatic mammals.) And earlier this month, a South Carolina grandma sued SeaWorld Orlando for allegedly drugging orcas and keeping them in “chemical tubs.”

Her suit is the second class-action claim against the company. Last year, SeaWorld was sued by its own shareholders for allegedly misleading shareholders over how badly “Blackfish” had hurt the company’s image and bottom line.

Perhaps the biggest slip up by SeaWorld, however, was its recent Twitter campaign, #AskSeaWorld, which elicited questions including “Why do you keep breeding whales when you barely have enough room for one?” and “Are your tanks filled with orca tears?”