From “Blackfish” to Blacklist: Show Biz Gets No Break from OSHA

On February 19, 2014

When you think about OSHA, you might envision wordy posters on lunchroom walls.  Government inspectors patrolling manufacturing floors.  Or construction workers in hardhats.

But amusement parks?  Neighborhood theaters?  Independent filmmakers?

You bet.

If you ever doubted that OSHA would crack down on the entertainment industry, SeaWorld should serve notice.  CNN can’t run “Blackfish” enough.  In case you missed it, the exposé gives a backstage look at the mistreatment of an orca, Tilikum, and the tragic loss of life that ensued.

The controversy got top billing once OSHA stepped in and the documentary gained traction.

The signature feature of the park was the sight of these powerful animals swimming and leaping in synch, guided by the commands of their trainers.

Not so anymore.  OSHA directed the park to segregate killer whales physically from their trainers.  SeaWorld has pled on appeal for precautions that don’t spell curtains for its business mission, like prohibiting trainers from swimming with the whales and revamped training protocols.

“Blackfish” is riding a public relations wave that threatens to swamp everything in its wake.  One ripple effect is the entertainment industry effectively blacklisting one of its own.  Willie Nelson and others, slated to entertain vacationers seeking family-friendly fun, are on the road again…to other venues.

You may not know it, but OSHA is no neophyte when it comes to regulating the entertainment industry.  Heard of the Broadway show “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark”?  Fall protection and other safety failures led to injuries for multiple actors, including one during a show.  OSHA stepped in, with the press and various comedians piling on soon after.  The final curtain fell on Spidey last month.

But “Spider-Man” wasn’t OSHA’s debut in the entertainment world either.  OSHA has always been there.  It just doesn’t always operate under the spotlight.  I’ve seen it from a front-row seat.

As Virginia’s Labor Commissioner, I saw a long cast of entertainment industry players wade into murky OSHA and labor law issues.  Like the independent film producer shooting a scene with an infant in a condemned shuttered prison.  Or the “reality show” producer who exposed minors to the violent behavior of depraved adults.  Or the community theater that unwittingly exposed unpaid child actors to a sex offender directing the show.  Or the “ultimate fighting” promoter featuring a clash of minors for a paid audience.

Certainly, when any industry places its workforce (and especially minors) in harm’s way, OSHA and state agencies are obligated to step in.  When they do, know that they mean business when it comes to show business.

If you’re in show business, you may need legal counsel.  Not just to defend against OSHA citations, but also to spot and avert legal issues before disasters hit.  A results-oriented attorney familiar with enforcement agencies can help you make sure the show goes on.

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