Jacksonville Zoo faces $14K in penalties after rhino injures keeper

OSHA cites Jacksonville Zoo over 'workplace safety hazards'

By Brittany Jones - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is being slapped with workplace safety citations and over $14,000 in penalties after a rhino injured a zookeeper in February.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched an inspection of the zoo after Archie the rhino struck a zookeeper, sending her to the hospital.

The zookeeper was struck in the arm, shoulder and stomach by the rhino’s horn during a routine training session. She was rewarding the rhino with food in a chute when it happened.

OSHA cited the zoo for “failing to protect workers from recognized hazards when employees train and feed the rhinos, and for not notifying OSHA within 24 hours of the employee’s hospitalization, as required.”

The animal park faces $14,661 in proposed penalties after being cited for "exposing employees to workplace safety hazards."

"I think there’s some things they may have overlooked or things we disagree with those citations," said Tony Vecchio, executive director of the Jacksonville zoo.

Vecchio said the zookeeper was only observed overnight and not actually hospitalized and he would like OSHA to explain how the zoo specifically needs to improve their safety policy.

"We’ve looked at it from every angle. We accept responsibility. She accepts responsibility," Vecchio said. "I’m sure if we have an accident that means we failed in some way and doing our jobs as well as we should."

The zoo has 15 business days from receipt of the citations and proposed penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

“Zoos and animal parks must ensure safety measures include proper design to protect employees when training and caring for animals,” said OSHA Area Office Director Michelle Gonzalez, in Jacksonville.

In April, the I-TEAM reported that the Northside attraction's accreditation was being reviewed after three safety incidents within a year. 

Before February's rhino incident, in October, a lion got through an open door and charged an employee who had to jump in a moat to get away. And African elephant Ali got out of his cage, causing a code red lockdown, in June.

The zoo was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing or negligence by the state and feds, but the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which is the gold standard for zoos across the country and accredits those who meet its standards, began an investigation in light of the incidents. 

The zoo retained its accreditation after the review.

The zookeeper injured by the rhino made a full recovery and returned to work at the zoo.

"It should be the zoo’s responsibility to keep their employees safe," zoogoer Jennifer Rodriguez said. "Somebody's got to be held responsible."

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