Wild About Zoo Safety: Keeping Employees Safe | The WorkSAFE Podcast

We traveled to the Saint Louis Zoo to talk to Safety Coordinator Domini Montgomery about zoo safety, and how they balance animal and keeper safety. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which you can also hear using the player.

MEM: Tell us about this particular zoo safety project – addressing slip hazards in the orangutan habitat.

Montgomery: This habitat is outdoors and it’s subject to all sorts of weather – rain, sleet, snow, etc. It’s also built on the ground; it’s not in the air or raised in any way, which can lead to erosion. Plus, it’s on a steep incline. All of these characteristics make the habitat great for the animals, but difficult for the keepers who access it for cleaning, feeding, and enrichment. In short, keepers were slipping, falling and trying to catch themselves. It could be a big fall or just a bruise; either way, employees were getting hurt and we knew we had to take action.

The challenge was to put in human safety features that still work well for the animals’ lives. We installed the natural stair steps, which look like part of the rock work. We also needed more hand-holds. We use fire hose a lot throughout zoo grounds for features like hammocks, so we incorporated the same material as hand-holds for keeper safety. Now it’s used as a railing, plus the animals can play on it for added enrichment.

What’s the importance of having natural-looking safety features?

The environment is first and foremost a habitat. It’s the animals’ home, so any features we add need to work for them. They also need to blend in with the aesthetic for the visitor experience. We did a lot of the rock work in-house, which allowed us to be creative while still meeting animals’ needs and keeping employees safe.

Another interesting challenge is that in this case, we had to ensure we weren’t adding potential tools to the habitat. Something that may not seem like an issue could be pulled off by one of these smart animals and used as a makeshift tool or weapon.

What safety features were in place before this project?

We had some, but the biggest missing piece was the stairs. The fire hose hand-holds were there, but not as many as we have now. Keepers were (and still are) provided with heavy-tread boots to access this habitat, but the biggest problem was the footing, which wasn’t directly addressed by previous features.

Orangutan at the Saint Louis Zoo

A Sumatran Orangutan ponders zoo safety.

What were the unique challenges of this project?

Well, the non-unique challenge was cost, especially for the Zoo as a nonprofit. Balancing our budget with the priorities of human and animal safety is always challenging. Having an in-house facilities management crew helps us manage cost and also helps projects like this one run more efficiently.

The most unique challenge is simply the nature of being a zoo. We have to make sure anyone working on zoo grounds, whether it’s an employee or contractor, has the proper training. They have to know about Zoo policies, our emergency notification system, and how to behave around the animals, especially if they’re working in close quarters.

Was it difficult to get the appropriate buy-in for this project?

No, we absolutely had the support we needed. Most organizations face the challenge of prioritizing the importance of a project vs. the time and resource commitment. When it comes to zoo safety, timing does matter because the severity of an accident can vary so much. We want to prevent any injuries we can.

How do you keep employee safety top of mind?

People think safety is expensive. Safety’s not expensive; accidents are expensive. And we don’t want anyone leaving work in worse shape than when they came in. Our goal is to give employees the education they need to be able to do their job, enjoy it, and then go home and spend time with their families.

Plus, one individual slacking on safety doesn’t just jeopardize that person. It affects team members, ongoing projects, and our mission at the Zoo.

Stone steps at Saint Louis Zoo

The steps blend in with the natural habitat, an important aspect of a zoo safety feature.

How do you train new employees?

Every employee goes through “Legacy,” our new hire orientation. We go through policies, dress code, things like that, and then we talk about zoo safety and security. We have an open-door policy when it comes to safety concerns.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job in safety?

The times that are the most rewarding for me may not seem that way from the outside. They’re things like an employee wearing goggles, or coming to ask for personal protective equipment. That shows me that we have actually changed someone’s mindset to prioritize safety. The orangutan habitat project was a huge win, and we have guard rails installed in a new habitat opening this fall.

Our goal is always to be proactive and prevent injuries. When you’re reactive, it means someone’s already gotten hurt. The things I mentioned seem small, but to me they’re huge because they involve prevention. Of course, safety features don’t mean much if people aren’t using them. So it’s also a win to get that buy-in from leadership as well as front-line staff.

What does your return to work program look like?

Our program is fairly new. We have several departments working together, like development and membership, to get light duty options for our staff. It’s a great program, because we could have someone who typically works in food service and has never seen another space of the Zoo getting to experience a new department and meet new colleagues. We’re looking to expand our return to work program even further.

What advice would you give other zoos looking to expand safety efforts?

Identify your values and mission. Here, we emphasize the “three keys”:

  1. Animals always
  2. People matter
  3. Operational excellence

As we’ve been discussing, safety ties into all three of these. Animal safety is a huge priority, as well as safety of our people – staff, volunteers, and visitors. Safety and operational excellence are also very closely related. It’s all about efficient programs and policies. Having a great safety program in place helps make sure employees have effective policies to follow.

So many things go into safety. It’s not just about OSHA guidelines. Safety is about a mindset and behavioral changes. It’s helping employees find the balance between being a safety professional and doing their primary job duties. You have to really want to keep people safe to do this job daily – safety is not always exciting. You have to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.


Thank you to the Saint Louis Zoo for sharing their story on the WorkSAFE Podcast. Check out our other WorkSAFE Podcast episodes, and subscribe for more workplace safety stories and insight.

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