Personal protection equipment to keep you safe at sea

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

14 April 2017


In addition to all of the ship’s safety systems and life-saving apparatus, it is personal protection equipment (PPE) that adds most to safety. PPE embraces clothing as well as equipment intended for use solely by individuals.

As the primary life saving device available for crew, passengers and contractors, the lifejacket is one of the most vital pieces of equipment to be found on board ships. Some are better than others and some have been found to be unsafe and more of a danger than a life preserving aid unfortunately despite regulations to the contrary some of the most dangerous have not been removed from ships.

Flotation devices made of wood or cork date back several centuries at least although the first patent for a cork lifejacket is recorded as being in 1765. Cork was largely superseded, firstly by kapok and more recently by modern synthetic foams. SOLAS-approved lifejackets are produced by many companies around the world and while all must meet the standards required the variety available means that some are probably more effective than others.

Because there is such a variety of SOLAS-approved lifejackets available including some which are inflatable there is a high potential for confusion as regards use. For this reason, some flag states will put a limit on the number of different types allowed on board any individual ship. Even where there is no such regulation, good practice would be to limit the number of types allowed even though this may mean some perfectly serviceable jackets will be disposed of when replacements are needed.

By the very fact of their basic training, crew members should be able to use lifejackets properly but passengers and supernumeraries will need instruction as soon as possible after boarding. Since 1 January 2015, prior to or immediately upon departure of any passenger vessel all newly embarked passengers are required to take part in an evacuation drill and this should include donning of lifejackets and checking by assigned crew that the jackets are correctly fitted and serviceable. There is no such requirement for supernumeries on cargo ships but it would be good practice for this to be treated in the same way.

Amendments to Chapter II of the LSA Code came into effect on 1 July 2010 and introduced the following requirements for the approval of lifejackets:

  • Each lifejacket shall be fitted with a whistle firmly secured by a lanyard.
  • Lifejacket lights and whistles shall be selected and secured to the lifejacket in such a way that their performance in combination is not degraded.
  • Each lifejacket shall be provided with a releasable buoyant line or other means to secure it to a lifejacket worn by another person in the water.
  • Each lifejacket shall be provided with a suitable means to allow a rescuer to lift the wearer from the water into a survival craft or rescue boat.

The requirements apply to lifejackets provided on board ships constructed (having their keel laid) on or after 1 July 2010 and when providing new lifejackets to vessels with a keel laying date before that date.

New requirements for the carriage of additional equipment, also effective 1 July 2010, have been introduced under SOLAS on all ships where adult lifejackets are not designed to fit persons weighing up to 140kg with a chest girth of up to 1,750mm. Now suitable accessories are to be provided that allow the lifejacket to be secured to such persons. All passenger ships are to be provided with lifejackets for “infants”.

Some of the requirements – for example lifting straps and buddy lines – were already features of some available lifejacket but not others. Any lifejacket supplied today should meet the requirements although some unscrupulous owners may try to circumvent the rules by purchasing what is now obsolete stock when replacing jackets on a vessel built before 2010. Caution is also needed when sourcing new products because of the large amount of counterfeiting that has been found to exist across all lifesaving equipment types.

All ships must carry an approved lifejacket for every person onboard the ship. SOLAS requires that lifejackets suitable for children must also be carried in a number equal to at least 10% of the number of passengers onboard and the number of such lifejacket must never be less than the number of children onboard. The lifejackets should be stored in the cabins of crew and passengers.

Jackets must also be carried for persons on watch at any time and must be stored on the bridge, in the engine control room and at any other manned watch station. An additional number of lifejackets equal to 5% of the persons onboard must also be carried and stored in conspicuous places on deck or at muster stations. Under certain circumstances, additional lifejackets must also be carried, and stored at muster stations or in public spaces, when it is likely that persons may not be able to return to their cabins to retrieve the lifejacket stored there.

Some flag States have similar requirements for domestic or non-international voyages. These are minimum requirements and shipowners’ policies may be to carry more. The Cruise Line International Association, a trade body for the cruise industry has imposed higher standards on its members.

AT MSC 93 in May 2014, some new requirements were added to the testing requirements for lifejackets. The details are included in MSC.268(93) and relate to the ability of lifejackets to keep wearers in a head up position on their backs so that the person’s airways are clear of the water.

Most life jackets onboard ships will be standard issue types selected by the shipowner’s purchasing department but there are specialist lifejackets available on the market. An example of this is the SeaSafe range which has changeable covers for use in different situations. The covers can be for example be fire retardant or anti-static. The range also includes a new Welders Panotex lifejacket made from a fire-proof fabric and thread with an aluminised finish.

Beyond lifejackets

A lifejacket may be adequate for use in temperate and tropical waters but in cold water they are only able to keep people afloat but not necessarily alive. Fortunately, there is an alternative and immersion suits are designed to aid in keeping crew alive and preventing hypothermia when in the water.

Until 2006 the number of immersion suits needed to be carried on any ship was limited but in that year the IMO introduced a requirement for a suit for each individual. As with lifejackets, immersion suits vary in type but all must meet performance standards.
Some suits have an inherent buoyancy that matches that required for lifejackets and can in some instances be substituted for lifejackets. Some ships that operate only in warm climates can be exempted from the requirement to carry immersion suits. When the 2006 requirement was introduced there was a dramatic increase in the number of companies manufacturing and supplying immersion suits but with the passing of the boom, many have since ceased trading. The quality of some suits was also considered suspect and there were several instances of product piracy where inferior suits were attempted to be passed off as genuine articles from trusted makers.

Suits are generally made in a range of three sizes to accommodate the diversity in size and weight of crew members. There should be a degree of adjustability in each suit to ensure the best fit and performance against leaks and body heat loss. Some suits have inherent insulation but others are designed to be worn with warm clothing to provide the thermal performance. Each type of suit should be clearly identifiable in this regard.

Immersion suits are made with welded or glued seams and these and the material from which they are made can deteriorate over time. For this reason all immersion suits should be subjected to an air pressure test at least every three years and more frequently if the suit is over ten years old. This last piece of advice is particularly relevant as 2016 marked the tenth anniversary for many of the suits supplied to meet the original 2006 requirement.

As with lifejackets there is a requirement for the number of suits to be recorded on ship’s safety certificates and also for training and instruction to be given in their use.

Linked to the requirement for immersion suits, SOLAS provides for alternative clothing that can be worn by crews of rescue boats and assigned special duties connected with use of a marine evacuation system. If not an approved immersion suit, the requirement under SOLAS is for a waterproof anti-exposure suit. Such a suit should :-

  • provide inherent buoyancy of at least 70 N;
  • be made of material which reduces the risk of heat stress during rescue and evacuation operations;
  • cover the whole body with the exception of the head and hands and, where the Administration so permits, feet; gloves and a hood shall be provided in such a manner as to remain available for use with the anti-exposure suits;
  • be able to be unpacked and donned without assistance within 2 min;
  • not sustain burning or continue melting after being totally enveloped in a fire for a period of 2 seconds;
  • be equipped with a pocket for a portable VHF telephone; give a lateral field of vision of at least 120°.`

Protection for passengers

Immersion suits are not the easiest pieces of personal protection to become familiar with and are therefore not considered appropriate for passengers. However, there is still an obvious need for passengers in lifeboats to be given protection against extreme temperatures and this is done by way of a thermal protective aid.

The thermal protective aid is an all-enveloping waterproof item that leaves only the face uncovered. It works by reducing evaporative and conductive heat loss from the wearer and must be designed to function in a temperature range of -30ºC to +20ºC.

All passenger ships must carry for each lifeboat on the ship at least three immersion suits complying with the requirements of the Code and, in addition, a thermal protective aid complying with the requirements the Code for every person to be accommodated in the lifeboat and not provided with an immersion suit. These immersion suits and thermal protective aids need not be carried: for persons to be accommodated in totally or partially enclosed lifeboats; or if the ship is constantly engaged on voyages in warm climates where, in the opinion of the Administration, they are unnecessary.

The provisions also apply to partially or totally enclosed lifeboats not complying with the requirements of the Code, provided they are carried on ships constructed before 1 July 1986.

Emergency flotation devices

As a first form of assistance for someone in the water, the lifebuoy is probably the easiest to carry and use. The exact number of lifebuoys that must be carried depend upon the length of the vessel and whether it is a cargo or passenger ship. The minimum number of lifebuoys on the smallest vessels (under 100m for cargo ships and under 60m for passenger vessels) is eight.

SOLAS requires the lifebuoys to be distributed so as to be readily available on both sides of the ship and as far as practicable on all open decks extending to the ship’s side. At least one should be placed in the vicinity of the stern. They must also be easy to cast loose and not secured in any way. At least one lifebuoy on each side of the ship must be fitted with a buoyant lifeline equal in length to not less than twice the height at which it is stowed above the waterline in the lightest seagoing condition, or 30m, whichever is the greater. At least half of the lifebuoys must be fitted with self-igniting lights and at least two of those should also be equipped with automatic smoke signals and be capable of quick release from the navigation bridge.

The requirement for light and smoke is to keep a visual fix on the lifebuoy while the ship performs the necessary man overboard manoeuvre. To some extent this has been partially replaced by the MOB button on the GPS but, whereas that will indicate the exact position the alarm was raised, the visual aids on the lifebuoy will help rescuers allow for current and drift.

Lifebuoys should be checked regularly for flotation performance as it is not unknown for the filling material to deteriorate to such an extent that the lifebuoy becomes unserviceable while looking to be in perfect condition.

Lifeboats, liferafts and lifebuoys may be the most obvious life-saving appliance but there are several other items of equipment which come under the general heading and which are included in the LSA Code and required under SOLAS. All ships are obliged to carry means of signalling such as flares and lights, embarkation ladders and a device for throwing lines.

When a ship is in distress alerting potential rescuers is first done using the ship’s GMDSS equipment. For cases where this is impossible and also for attracting attention of search and rescue aircraft and ships the use of pyrotechnics is called for. The red distress flare is the most useful for attraction attention over a distance with hand flares and smoke being used
for shorter distances.

A rocket parachute flare can be seen from a distance of up to 30 nautical miles under optimum conditions at night and from 8 nautical miles during daylight. SOLAS requires ships to maintain a stock of at least 12 flares on the bridge and no less than four in each lifeboat or liferaft.

Hand-held flares and smoke signals have a much shorter range and are intended to allow search and rescue craft to pinpoint the position of any survival craft. Each lifeboat or liferaft should be equipped with six hand flares and two buoyant smoke signals as well as an electric torch with spare batteries and bulbs suitable for Morse signalling. Also in the survival craft should be a signalling mirror, whistle and a copy of the life-saving signals on a waterproof card.

Pyrotechnics have an expiry date and should be replaced before they expire. Failure to have sufficient pyrotechnics on board and in survival craft will cause a ship to be detained by PSC inspectors. When needed pyrotechnics should only be used when there is reasonably good chance that they will be seen. Parachute flares burn for a minimum of 40 seconds falling from a height of about 300metres. Instructions for use should be printed on the flare and also presented in a picture format. Hand flares are used to guide the searching ship or aircraft or pinpoint the survivors’ position. They burn for a minimum of one minute and are ideal for day or night use and have a range of five nautical miles by day and 10 nautical miles at night.

Smoke signals are used to pinpoint the survivors’ position. The smoke signal’s use to raise an alarm is doubtful. They will be more readily seen from an aircraft than a surface craft. They are for daytime use only and smoke for a minimum of three
minutes. Their range is at the most about two to three nautical miles in good visibility.

Passing a line to a person in the water or across to another vessel is often essential in emergencies so it is not surprising that there is a mandatory requirement to carry a line- throwing appliance. SOLAS says that the line thrower should:

  • be capable of throwing a line with reasonable accuracy;
  • include not less than four projectiles each capable of carrying the line at least 230m in calm weather; • include not less than four lines each having a breaking strength of not less than 2kN;
  • have brief instructions or diagrams clearly illustrating the use of the line-throwing appliance.`

The rocket, in the case of a pistol-fired rocket, or the assembly, in the case of an integral rocket and line, shall be contained in a water-resistant casing. In addition, in the case of a pistol-fired rocket, the line and rockets together with the means of ignition shall be stowed in a container which provides protection from the weather.

There are a number of line throwing devices that meet SOLAS requirements and also have enhanced features. The ResQmax for example, is a compressed-air powered device that as well as the standard line throwing projectile can be used to fire an automatically inflating flotation collar to a person in the water. In addition the standard projectile can be swapped
for a phosphorescent projectile for night use. Restech in Norway produce a similar pneumatic powered device with alternative projectiles beyond the standard SOLAS required version.

Lifeboats, liferafts and evacuation systems are intended to be used from the embarkation deck. However, there will be occasions when a ladder may be the only means of reaching the water other than jumping from the ship. Ladders also have other uses as was clearly demonstrated by the images of the Costa Concordia that were flashed around the world in early 2012. Once the ship had listed so far to starboard, the only means of reaching survival craft from the port side involved survivors making their way down the hull. The ladders secured to the rails and thrown down the hull provided some measure of safety and for the survivors.
SOLAS requires handholds be provided to ensure a safe passage from the deck to the head of the ladder and vice versa. It also covers the construction of the ladder saying the steps must be made from machined hardwood and of a precise size and the side ropes of the ladder must consist of two uncovered continuous manila ropes not less than 65mm in circumference on each side.

Personal locator beacons (PLBs)

A PLB is a relatively new development which employs the same principal as an EPIRB and transmits a radio signal on the 406MHz wavelength that will be picked up by ships’ GMDSS stations.

They are small battery-powered devices about the size of a large mobile phone or small walkie talkie that can be easily carried in a pocket or on a belt clip. Depending on the maker – the numbers of which are growing – the battery is usually of the lithium ion type with a life span of up to six-years. Normally they will transmit a signal for a minimum 24 hours.

The issue of PLBs is not covered under SOLAS and so their availability to crew may be limited by the generosity or otherwise of the ship operator. They are however relatively inexpensive and well within the means of most seafarers to purchase for themselves.

Fire-fighting aids

Fires at sea usually mean that the ship’s crew is alone in fighting the fire and assistance might not be available. Closer to shore and when in port, assistance can be given by local fire brigades and specialist marine fire-fighting units. These firefighters, although professionals, will be at a disadvantage because they will not know the layout of the vessel.

For this reason it is required by SOLAS that a duplicate set of fire control plans or a booklet containing such plans shall be permanently stored in a prominently marked weathertight enclosure outside the deckhouse for the assistance of shore-side fire-fighting personnel.

Although a ship’s crew will likely tackle a fire with whatever is to hand, there is a requirement for fire-fighting outfits to be carried on all SOLAS ships above 500gt. The exact requirements are contained in the FSS Code and are:

2.1.1 Personal Equipment
Personal Equipment shall consist of the following:

  • protective clothing of material to protect the skin from the heat radiating from the fire and from burns and scalding by steam. The outer surface shall be water- resistant;
  • boots of rubber or other electrically non-conducting material
  • rigid helmet providing effective protection against impact;
  • electric safety lamp (hand lantern) of an approved type with a minimum burning period of 3hours. Electric safety lamps on tankers and those intended to be used in hazardous areas shall be of an explosion-proof type; and
  • axe with a handle provided with high-voltage insulation`

2.1.2 Breathing Apparatus
`Breathing apparatus shall be a self-contained compressed air-operated breathing apparatus for which the volume of air contained in the cylinders shall be at least 1,200 l, or other self-contained breathing apparatus which shall be capable of functioning for at least 30 min. All air cylinders for breathing apparatus shall be interchangeable.

2.1.3 Lifeline
For each breathing apparatus a fireproof lifeline of at least 30m in length shall be provided. The lifeline shall successfully pass an approval test by statical load of 3.5 kN for 5 min without failure. The lifeline shall be capable of being attached by means of a snap-hook to the harness of the apparatus or to a separate belt in order to prevent the breathing apparatus becoming detached when the lifeline is operated. The minimum number of outfits as laid down in SOLAS is two and increases with ship size and type. The outfits should be stored in the fire control room and in places that are easily accessible during emergencies.

In November 2012, SOLAS requirements were amended to require the fire-fighting outfit to include communication devices. For ships constructed on or after 1 July 2014, a minimum of two two-way portable radiotelephone apparatus for each fire party for fire-fighter’s communication shall be carried on board.

The two-way portable radiotelephone apparatus must be of an explosion-proof type or intrinsically safe. Ships constructed before 1 July 2014 will be required to comply not later than the first survey after 1 July 2018. The two-way radiotelephone apparatus provided to meet this requirement should be stowed with the fireman’s outfits and ready for use with them at any time.

A check on the state of charge of the batteries in the units should be included in the routine inspections of fire-fighting equipment. Another amendment that was adopted at the same time covers recharging of breathing apparatus cylinders. The rules now require an onboard means of recharging breathing apparatus cylinders used during drills to be provided or a suitable number of spare cylinders shall carried on board to replace those used. This is intended to ensure that ships have spare filled air cylinders for use during drills without depleting the availability of cylinders for emergency use. The regulation allows for ships to be fitted with either a means of recharging used cylinders, or provided with extra cylinders over and above those carried in accordance with Ch. II-2 Regulation 10.10.2.5.

As well as the fire-fighting outfit, ships are also required to carry a number of emergency escape breathing devices (EEBDs). An EEBD is a supplied-air or oxygen device only used for escape from a compartment that has a hazardous atmosphere. Performance standards require the EEBD to have at least 10 minutes supply of oxygen and should include a hood or full face piece, as appropriate, to protect the eyes, nose and mouth during escape. Hoods and face pieces should be constructed of flame resistant materials, and include a clear window for viewing. They are not designed for use for fighting or entering oxygen deficient voids or tanks.
All cargo ships must carry two EEBDs in accommodation spaces and passenger ships must carry at least two EEBDs in main vertical zones. For ships carrying more than 36 passengers, two additional emergency escape sets will be required in each main vertical zone. In some cases additional devices may be required under flag state rules.

Equipment for everyday use

Appropriate work wear should be issued to all crew members on joining. The kit should be in good serviceable condition and of an appropriate size. Work wear that is too small or too large can present safety problems of its own.

As a minimum, each crewman should have overalls, a safety helmet, safety goggles, boots and gloves. For crew working in areas of high noise levels, ear protectors are essential and are now a requirement under MLC2006. Thought should be given to climate and weather conditions likely to be encountered so that the equipment is appropriate.

Spare equipment should be available on board to replace damaged or lost equipment. Equipment such as welding masks and safety harnesses should be present in sufficient numbers allowing crew to have access when needed.