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Troubled Waters at Sea World: Another Ex-Employee Alleges Obstruction in OSHA's Investigation of Orca Trainer's Death

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Last month, the former head of safety at Sea World Orlando made headlines and rocked the marine mammal industry when she accused company officials of blocking a federal investigation into the death of senior trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed in February by a six-ton orca with a bloody past.

Now a former human resources director has come forward with her own allegations of obstruction and "stonewalling" during the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's official inquiry, which ended Aug. 23 with a "willful" violation in Brancheau's death and $75,000 in fines.

Sea World is contesting OSHA's findings and penalties and vigorously denies the two former officials' allegations -- accusing one of lying and extortion, and suggesting that both women fabricated their accusations to seek monetary damages from the popular central Florida park.

The charges and counter-charges are messy. Michelle Dillard, who resigned in July as HR Director at Sea World, said:

I personally witnessed [the Sea World Management team] outright lying to OSHA, using intentional delay tactics to stonewall the investigation and, behind closed doors, revealing an inflexible and obstinate refusal to be forthcoming and accommodating toward OSHA.

Dillard made her allegations in a written statement provided to OSHA that I obtained.

She denounced what she called a "historical culture" of misinformation and cover-up at the company and charged that her former boss, Sea World's VP of human resources, "hid documents, pretended to not know that documents existed and obstructed OSHA's investigation. I personally witnessed [my boss'] intention to refuse to cooperate with a single request from OSHA without being forced to do so by her own counsel."

Dillard resigned in July, she says, because of a work environment where there was pressure to forestall the inquiry, which was emotionally overwhelming. The associated stress was likewise detrimental to her health. (She faced similar management behavior during prior audits and investigations, Dillard says).

The investigation "was important to me personally," she wrote to OSHA, "since the information they gathered might have a great impact on practices at the park that were unsafe and might lead to another hideous and unnecessary death as the one suffered by Ms. Brancheau."

On February 24, 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a highly experienced senior trainer, was pulled into the killer whale tank in front of horrified tourists by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound orca previously associated with two other human deaths. He grabbed Brancheau by her long ponytail and dragged her to the bottom of the pool, then took her in his mouth and thrashed her around violently. It took 30 minutes to retrieve Brancheau's body from Tilikum's mouth.

The autopsy revealed the cause of death as drowning and "traumatic injuries," including a broken jaw, crushed ribs, fractured sternum, liver lacerations and tearing away of Brancheau's scalp and left arm.

One reason why Dillard has come forward, she said in an interview, is to publicly support Linda Simons, the former Director of Health & Safety at Sea World Orlando, who was fired by the company in April, just two months after the incident.

Simons shocked the world and called into question Sea World's pristine, family-friendly image by accusing the company of having lax safety standards for animal trainers, and claiming she was dismissed for refusing to cooperate in Sea World's "obstruction" of the OSHA investigation.

Simons, who was hired just one week before Brancheau's death, had been named by Sea World as its official liason to the OSHA investigation. But, she said in a legal complaint against Sea World, "I was told to obstruct the investigation, manipulate documents, withhold documents, make witnesses unavailable and other improprieties which were unlawful when a government agency is doing an investigation."

On Aug. 23, Simons appeared with her attorney, Maurice Arcadier, on CNN's Larry King Live, in which she repeated the allegations:

Sea World did not fully cooperate. From the very beginning, they wanted to block them [OSHA] from coming onsite. They wanted to withhold documents. When I was terminated, there were still documents that OSHA had requested and never been given. They also wanted to make sure that those documents were never disclosed out to the public, because of the damage that could be done. So they did not fully cooperate with the investigation.

Tough stuff. But Sea World fired back with equal ferocity. Larry King read the statement on the air:

We have cooperated fully in OSHA's inspection of the February 24th accident. We're not at all surprised to hear that Ms. Simons has reached out to the media with these unfounded charges. Since her termination several months ago, her representatives have used the threat of negative publicity to seek a sizable monetary payment from Sea World in exchange for her not going public with these false allegations. [She] was fired not for the reasons she cites, but rather for poor performance during the OSHA inspection of Dawn Brancheau's death. During those critical weeks, Ms. Simons repeatedly demonstrated an inability to conduct herself to the acceptable standards of competence, transparency, integrity or professionalism demanded of an inspection of this magnitude. Any claim to the contrary is simply false.

In addition to a wrongful termination lawsuit and a formal OSHA complaint, Simons has now filed a defamation lawsuit against Sea World, saying the company falsely accused her of extortion, poor job performance, lack of integrity, and "a crime of moral turpitude."

Sea World is trying to force Simons' defamation lawsuit into private arbitration, and it may succeed. But Simons has now received backup from Sea World's former HR director, Michelle Dillard. She wrote to OSHA:

I personally witnessed Linda Simons do everything in her power to cooperate with OSHA and still protect the interests of Sea World. She pled with the Sea World management team to cooperate with OSHA so that another park employee might avoid Ms. Brancheau's fate. However, it was clear from my extensive and unfortunate bitter past experiences with the Sea World management's culture that it was highly likely she would soon be a victim of retaliation.

Dillard said that only half of the staff members who were in Shamu Stadium to rescue Brancheau that day had been made available to OSHA for interviews. And she claimed that Sea World did not turn over observation reports of its killer whales made by college student volunteers, who watch and take notes on the animals 24 hours a day, according to Dillard.

But Fred Jacobs, VP of Communications for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, disputed those accounts, and said that Dillard and Simons are not to be believed.

"Ms. Dillard was not involved in the OSHA inspection of Dawn Brancheau's death," Jacobs told me. "Sea World cooperated fully with the agency and, since the OSHA investigation continued for months after (their) employment with Sea World ended, they have no knowledge as to what documents or witnesses were provided to the agency."

OSHA officials, meanwhile, would not comment on the allegations because Sea World is suing OSHA to overturn its findings. But people with knowledge of the investigation told me that there is some evidence to support the claims of Simons and Dillard (who could be called to testify against Sea World when it takes OSHA to court).

In particular, OSHA demanded all training records pertaining to orcas and their trainers in all Sea World parks, but only received some of those records, sources close to the investigation said. And they added that Sea World executives had denied the existence of animal profiles and "aggression incident notebooks," even though several trainers (and Linda Simons) told OSHA they had personally seen them.

It's conceivable that some of those notebooks could contain information on unusual behavior exhibited by Tilikum in the days or hours before the attack.

But instead, Sea World "made life hell for the six months of the investigation," according to one government official, who asked for anonymity.

Despite this, OSHA still hit Sea World with the first-ever safety violation on this type of live interaction between humans and animals.

"Sea World recognized the inherent risk of allowing trainers to interact with potentially dangerous animals," Cindy Coe, OSHA's regional administrator, said in a statement. "Nonetheless, it required its employees to work within the pool walls, on ledges and on shelves where they were subject to dangerous behavior by the animals."

OSHA said that video footage "shows the killer whale repeatedly striking and thrashing the trainer, and pulling her under water even as she attempted to escape." Meanwhile, Sea World trainers "had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities, including its location in Orlando. Despite this record, management failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees."

OSHA issued a "willful citation" against Sea World for exposing trainers to "struck-by and drowning hazards" when working with orcas. A willful violation is "one committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health."

Now, in the wake of Brancheau's tragic death, Sea World's attorneys will be busy for months or years to come.

First, they must fight to overturn the federal violations. Sea World said on its website:

OSHA's allegations are unsupported by any evidence or precedent and reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the safety requirements associated with marine mammal care. We look forward to challenging OSHA's unfounded allegations and are confident that we will prevail.

And they will have to ward off lawsuits from Brancheau's husband Scott, and from a New Hampshire family whose young son reportedly was severely traumatized after witnessing the attack by Tilikum.

And of course, they still have their ex-employees to contend with. Michelle Dillard and attorney Maurice Arcadier are asking for compensation through arbitration for what is called "constructive termination," (when working conditions are so unbearable that one is forced to quit) and Simons has her wrongful termination and defamation complaints.

But Sea World is ready to fight back. Both women "are involved in legal action against Sea World and both are represented by the same attorney," Jacobs noted.

"That lawyer, in May and August of this year, threatened that Simons would go to the press with these unfounded allegations unless Sea World agreed to pay her hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said.

Simons and Arcadier deny that allegation. Like I said, it gets messy.

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