The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the Fort Worth Zoo for failing to keep a zookeeper safe and for failing to report the worker's injuries as required by law.
A citation issued by OSHA said the zoo has 15 days to either contest the citation or make changes to protect elephant keepers from serious harm.
Earlier this month, an NBC 5 Investigation raised safety concerns about how the Fort Worth Zoo handles elephants. That report revealed how a young elephant calf injured a zookeeper in September 2015.
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Emergency responders and the Fort Worth Zoo offered two different versions of what happened in the September incident.
Fort Worth 9-1-1 reports obtained through an open records request said a 37-year-old female zookeeper suffered a, "puncture wound from an animal."
MedStar, which handles ambulance calls for the City of Fort Worth, said its records show the victim was taken to a hospital with "serious injuries" and that the incident was reported as an "elephant attack."
The zoo has denied that to NBC 5, saying the injuries were minor.
OSHA has now fined the zoo $12,500 for safety violations, including one violation the agency terms "serious."
An OSHA citation said the zoo "...did not protect employees from the hazards of being struck-by, caught-in-between and impalement while working with elephants."
The agency has given the zoo an April 1st deadline to either make changes or challenge the citations.
“They're going to have to come up with some kind of abatement or correction on how they handle elephants by April 1,” said Plano labor attorney, Bob Chadwick.
Chadwick often handles OSHA cases. He said the fines levied against the zoo are significant by OSHA standards and the citations make it clear OSHA wants the zoo to re-examine how its workers interact with elephants.
“They're going to have to sit there and say we've done something specific to abate this hazard and describe what they've done,” said Chadwick.
One option OSHA has given the zoo is to ensure that all workers follow standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which require zoos to place protective barriers between zookeepers and elephants in most situations.
At the Fort Worth Zoo, zookeepers still practice what's called “free contact," sharing the same space with elephants as they train them and care for them.
In video on the zoo's own website you can see how trainers work around elephants without barriers in place.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) hopes the OSHA fines will force the Fort Worth Zoo to use barriers.
“This sends a clear message to the zoo and elephant exhibitors that allowing workers to come into direct contact with wild animals is an accident waiting to happen,” said PETA counsel, Rachel Matthews.
PETA asked OSHA to investigate the Fort Worth Zoo, after NBC 5 Investigates first reported the zookeeper's injuries making the incident public for the first time, two weeks ago.
The Fort Worth Zoo has declined repeated requests to be interviewed on camera.
In a written statement the zoo said:
"Under OSHA's own rules, they are required to allow us the opportunity to meet and give our input and feedback on their report, and we look forward to doing so. As one of the top zoos in the nation, we are proud to have the chance to discuss further with them our highly successful worldwide elephant conservation program, our extensive employee training and our strong safety history.”
Chadwick said companies often negotiate with OSHA or reach some type of settlement to reduce the fines.
What's not clear right now is how the zoo will show OSHA it has done enough to prevent elephant keepers from getting hurt again in the future.
OSHA has also accused the Fort Worth Zoo of failing to report the elephant keeper's injuries to the agency, as required by law.
Employers are supposed to notify OSHA within 24 hours anytime a worker is hospitalized after being hurt on the job.