Health & Safety breach costs life as zoo fined following keeper’s death

A zoo in Cumbria has been fined £400,000, following the death of a keeper at the hands of a Sumatran tiger. The zoo recently pleaded guilty to the charges of not keeping a safe working environment, which ultimately led to the tragic incident.

A “substantial contributory cause”

In 2009, while working her usual tasks at the South Lakes Safari Zoo in Ulverston, zookeeper Sarah McClay was killed when one of the tigers managed to enter from outside  through a panel door and into a corridor she occupied. Early remarks from the zoo’s owner David Gill suggested the event was “inexplicable”.

There was speculation that Sarah may have chosen to unlock the gates separating the tigers from her to commit suicide, but further investigation determined that “a result of a door closing mechanism failure” was the reason why the tiger, named Padang, gained access.

South Lakes Safari Zoo owner David Gill speaks on the incident

The tiger went straight at Sarah upon entry and mauled her, puncturing her throat. She suffered fatal injuries at the scene and upon being airlifted to hospital, was pronounced dead. Despite the tragic nature of the event, her family asked that Padang did not get put down for the incident.

Risky Job Roles

Zookeeping can be a very high risk job, with numerous animals having the ability to cause lethal damage. Often, safety procedures are in place to ensure there is never contact between keepers and animals that can cause harm.

Even when the animals are not the major threat, keepers can be at risk from equipment and environmental risks, much the same as an agricultural worker is. They utilise tools similar to a farm worker from pitchforks to driving carts loaded with animal feed. They encounter heavy lifting when it comes to bags of feed, manure or hay and can be at risk to slippy floors from rain outside or spillages inside.

Duties of Care

Every employer owes a duty of care to an employee to ensure a safe environment no matter what that industry is. It is accepted that some industries have higher injury risks such as construction, manufacturing and agriculture due to tasks involving working at height, heavy machinery and animals. Zoos and safari parks are no different and unfortunately in this case, their procedures for checking equipment proved fatal.

South Lakes Safari Zoo has come under scrutiny in the past including a keeper falling from a ladder while feeding big cats in 2014. In any workplace, a duty of care is not the failure to stop all accidents at work; it is the regimen of doing everything possible to prevent injury including safe procedures, PPE or equipment to help perform a task. In this case the bolt which failed to secure the door should have been checked; according to Crown Court prosecutors.

The total cost to the zoo could escalate over £400,000 including prosecution costs, fines and damages to the victim’s family. While fatal injuries in the workplace are rare occurrences and the compensation would never bring back Miss McClay, it is a definite reminder to all zoos to ensure the health and wellbeing of every member of staff at all times.

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