May 21, 2014

The NFL, the Circus, and Shamu: Safety for Greatest Shows on Earth. ~ Jennifer Z. Gillespie


Kayla is a 25 year old female orca, shown here with an orca trainer at SeaWorld Orlando

Examining OSHA’s role in sports and entertainment.

The court’s recent upholding of OSHA’s decision to ban all water-work by orca trainers is appalling.
Is the American public so mesmerized by the sensationalized depiction of one trainer’s death-by-orca (Blackfish) that it has forgotten the values of liberty and freedom? Who is being protected here by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)?

Ostensibly OSHA operates to protect the people in the profession of orca training. However, there is no official complaint by any orca trainer to OSHA about safety. Rather, OSHA has become involved through attacks on trainers by orcas and the handling of those attacks on the part of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Inc.

This in and of itself is fully appropriate—OSHA reviews protocols and procedures and make judgments about the safety of working conditions. What is appalling to me is OSHA’s lack of evidence to support its decision to ban the essential element of the orca training profession (water-work), while at the same time allowing many other professions in this country to include activities that are at least as dangerous.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that playing professional football is associated with traumatic brain injury. For example, John Hopkins Medicine held a press conference on the topic, and Huffington Post reports that thousands of families are suing the NFL over long-term damage caused by concussions sustained by professional football players. (1.)

Yet, tackles are not banned, and no one would even dare suggest it.

Orca training, on the other hand, is not generally associated with death, and there is no one suing Seaworld over damage caused by orca training.

So, why is football an American pastime, while water-work with orcas is banned?

One may argue that football is a sport, whereas orca training is not. Okay, then what about performers in Cirque de Soleil? MGM Grand and Cirque de Soleil are facing thousands of dollars in citations by OSHA after an experienced acrobat and aerialist fell to her death during a show.

Recently, nine aerialists fell during a hair-hanging act at a Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus performance. The performers fell some 30 feet to the ground, and since then there have been calls for more oversight within the profession of aerial work. (2)

Still, no one is suggesting we ban aerial work! So why is waterwork banned?

Perhaps OSHA has clear evidence for its decision to ban water-work in the profession of orca training? I have read the documents associated with this case, such as the citation report. Most directly relevant to the banning of water-work is Citation 2, Item 1 (Willful). An excerpt reads as follows: “The employer did not furnish employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm”

Importantly, nowhere in the citation report does OSHA specify the factors that make waterwork more or less safe.  Instead, all water-work is banned. Who or what is OSHA to ban an essential element of a profession? What if OSHA banned acrobats from aerial work, and boxers from boxing?

Can you imagine the public reaction if OSHA banned football players from doing their job?

No more tackles in football, per OSHA? Should the NFL be “touch-only”?

Really, though, my main question is this: Is it wise to give OSHA such wide regulatory power, and who is to oversee it for potential abuse?

I agree SeaWorld bears responsibility for the safety of its workers, as do the Ringling Brothers and the NFL. I do not understand the logic of OSHA’s ruling to entirely remove contact between orcas and trainers, both in terms of the entertainment and animal husbandry aspects of the profession.

How do we keep safe the greatest shows on earth? At least in the case of orca trainers, maybe OSHA does not know best? Government oversight has a place, but people in fatal professions must also have the freedom and responsibility to regulate their own safety. (3)



1. Junior Seau’s Family Sues NFL Over Brain Injuries. Huffington Post. January 23, 2013.

2. Circus acrobat injured in fall eager to do hair-hanging again. CBS News. May 7, 2014.

Sarasota daredevil Wallenda seeks circus regulations after ‘hair hang’ mishap. wfla.com. May 05, 2014.

9 Circus Performers Injured in Fall in Rhode Island. NY Times. May 4, 2014.

3. America’s 10 Deadliest Jobs. Forbes.com. August 22, 2013.


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