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Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) used onboard ships



Training, experience and good practices are the frontline against accident and injury at sea just as in any other industry. That said, proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is also essential to allow crew and contractors to work in 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 and 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 Cork was largely superseded, firstly by kapok and more recently by modern synthetic foams.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 number 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 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 rationalise the types on a ship, 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, all newly embarked passengers are required to take part in an evacuation drill prior to or immediately upon departure of any passenger vessel. 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, were 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”.

Any lifejacket supplied today should meet the latest SOALS requirements although some unscrupulous owners may try to circumvent the rules by purchasing what is now obsolete stock. 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, 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 lifejackets stored there.

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 that are designed for use when performing tasks such as welding or fighting fires.

Survival suits

Survival suits

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: immersion suits, which 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 since that boom, many have 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 10 years old. As with lifejackets, there is a requirement for the number of suits to be recorded on ships’ safety certificates and 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 those 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 70N;
  • 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 two minutes;
  • not sustain burning or continue melting after being totally enveloped in a fire for a period of two seconds;
  • be equipped with a pocket for a portable VHF telephone; give a lateral field of vision of at least 120°.

Passenger PPE

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. This 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 LSA Code and a thermal protective aid complying with the requirements 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.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)

Although personal locator beacons (PLB) are not intended to be a replacement for SOLAS equipment, some seafarers carry their own PLBs in case they are either lost overboard or need to take to lifeboats.

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. They will normally transmit a signal for a minimum 24 hours.

The issue of PLBs is not covered under SOLAS 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.

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