Earlier this year, an elephant killed an animal trainer at the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee. Now the zoo faces fines from that state’s safety agency (TOSHA).
This case also provides another example of how federal and state OSHAs can use the General Duty Clause when no specific workplace regulation applies to a situation.
In January, Edie, an 8,500 pound African elephant, pushed trainer Stephanie James into the steel beams of a stall and then to the ground. James was rushed to a local hospital where she died a few hours later.
James had called the elephant into the stall to give her a treat box. Another trainer in the elephant barn said Edie’s eyes widened when she entered the stall as if she had been spooked.
TOSHA’s investigation uncovered that there had been previous incidents involving Edie with both trainers and visitors. Another employee said he was working with the elephant in December 2007 when she hit him with her trunk and knocked him down, twice. Edie then held the trainer down with her tusk and started pushing him into the steel bars of the stall. The elephant stopped that attack on its own, and the worker was treated for injuries at a hospital.
A TOSHA investigator concluded that because of Edie’s previous aggressive behavior, the zoo should have placed her in “protected contact,” meaning the trainers are never inside a stall with an elephant.
TOSHA issued a serious General Duty Citation for $5,000 to the zoo for not placing animals such as Edie in protected contact to prevent employees from being injured. The General Duty Clause says an employer must provide an environment free of recognized hazards that were likely to cause death or serious injury.
The zoo was also cited for not reporting James’ death to TOSHA in a timely manner and for violations not related to the fatality. The fines total $12,600. The zoo says it has formally contested all of the citations and penalties.