"Are the emotions inspired by the grandeur of humans interacting with killer whales worth the dangers created by the interactions?"
That was the question, in his own words, with which Judge Ken Welsch grappled in a closely watched case probing worker safety at SeaWorld.
His answer came Wednesday: No.
In a decision that could reshape the theme park's world-famous whale shows, Welsch, an administrative law judge for the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, mostly upheld the safety citations issued against SeaWorld following the tragic death of a whale trainer in Orlando, Fla., in 2010.
The judge also affirmed an OSHA recommendation to which SeaWorld officials had strongly objected: that trainers be separated from killer whales by a physical barrier if the two are near each other in the water. It's a change that will likely alter the whale-trainer dynamic during performances.
OSHA head David Michaels praised the judge's decision on Wednesday, saying his agency's only intent was to "ensure the safety and health of employees who work with SeaWorld’s killer whales" during performances. The judgment, Michaels said in a statement, "is a win for the employees of SeaWorld, because within 10 days after the Judge's order becomes final, SeaWorld must abate the hazards and provide documentation to OSHA's Tampa Area Office that the hazards have been corrected."
SeaWorld officials could not be reached for comment after business hours on Wednesday.
The case stems from the Feb. 24, 2010, death of Dawn Brancheau, a whale trainer at SeaWorld's Orlando park. Brancheau was killed during a live performance when a six-ton, 29-year-old killer whale named Tilikum grabbed her by her ponytail and pulled her underwater. After the highly public drowning, OSHA investigators performed workplace safety inspections of the Orlando park, ultimately accusing the company of not sufficiently protecting its trainers from the killer whales.
Judge Welsch held a two-week hearing on the violations in November, during which SeaWorld argued, unsuccessfully, that the close proximity between whale and trainer was worth the risks. Six months later, he has issued his decision.
Back in November, Welsch said, "This probably is one of the most unusual OSHA hearings I've had ... I'm going to spend a lot of time dealing with this issue. I think it's a very complicated issue."