Spotlight on Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) & Maritime Worker Safety

Working at sea, even when close to shore, can present serious risks. One ever-present hazard is the water itself. If a crewmember falls overboard or a vessel capsizes or sinks, survival will depend on more than one’s ability to swim or tread water. Even an experienced swimmer can quickly lose muscle control in cool water, affecting their ability to stay afloat or pull themselves back on board. Personal flotation devices (PFDs) are a seaman’s first line of defense against drowning.

A personal flotation device is one of the most important pieces of safety gear on any maritime vessel. Also referred to as life jackets or life vests, PFDs are designed for different uses, but all are meant to help a person stay afloat if they fall overboard or end up in the water for any reason. Some are better for use in rough or remote waters and are designed in such a way as to turn an unconscious person face-up in the water. Others are more appropriate for calmer waters and may not be able to turn an unconscious person over. Finally, some are throwable devices, not meant to be worn but rather to be tossed to a person who has fallen overboard.

Maritime employers should provide seamen and offshore workers with the appropriate type of PFD based on their job duties, the type of vessel they’re working on, and even weather and sea conditions, when applicable. This could mean the difference between life and death for a man overboard.

Man Overboard Statistics & Personal Flotation Device Use

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), falls overboard are the second leading cause of death for commercial fishermen in the United States. What’s more, out of the 210 fishermen who died from falling overboard between 2000 and 2014, none were wearing personal flotation devices.

Falls overboard are a risk for other seamen as well. In the maritime towing industry, falls overboard account for about half of fatalities each year. A study by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and American Waterways Organization (AWO) found that about half of all crew fatalities between 2000 and 2010 were caused by falls overboard. Two-thirds of these incidents were unwitnessed, and deckhands accounted for more than three-fourths of the crew member deaths. PFDs were used in less than four out of ten fatalities.

Man overboard incidents can be caused by loss of balance, slippery decks, or being struck by equipment. Regardless of their cause, proper PFD use will be a crew member’s best hope of surviving.

The Paul Revere in Bristol Bay, Alaska: How PFDs Saved 3 Lives

On the evening of June 26, 2010, a skipper and her two-man crew were setting their gear for the beginning of the salmon fishing season. Suddenly the vessel, named the Paul Revere, capsized. The crew was thrown into the waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska. Thankfully, they were wearing personal floatation devices. They ended up drifting in the ocean for two hours, unable to flag down any other vessels for help. Finally, they grabbed hold of a set net line and pulled themselves toward the shore.

This crew was able to rescue themselves because they were wearing PFDs. Without them, they wouldn’t have stood a chance against the effects of cold water immersion and would have drowned.

Cold Water Immersion & Why Personal Floatation Devices Are So Important

When you think of falling into cold water, you might assume that hypothermia would be the biggest danger. While hypothermia is certainly a factor, it may take 20 or 30 minutes to set in. A person who has fallen overboard is far more likely to suffer from cold incapacitation. Also known as cold shock, cold incapacitation occurs when a person loses muscle function and control as a result of immersion in cool water.

Water doesn’t have to be freezing to cause cold shock. Water temperatures of 59 degrees Fahrenheit or colder may cause increased heart rate, even heart attack, involuntary gasping, water inhalation, and panic. A grown man may begin to drown after swallowing just 8 ounces of seawater. It can only take a few minutes for a person who has entered the water to lose 60% to 80% of their strength and coordination. This is where a personal flotation device can make all the difference.

A PFD allows a person who has fallen overboard to keep their head above the water, even if their body responds this way to the cold water. It buys them invaluable time to catch their breath, calm down, and assess the situation. It can save them from drowning before being able to call out or pull themselves out of the water.

Who Is Responsible for Providing PFDs?

Vessel owners and operators have a duty to provide appropriate PFDs to all crew members. What’s more, they must train their crews on wearing and using these devices, responding to man-overboard incidents, and surviving in the water after a fall overboard. They should also take steps to avoid falls overboard in the first place, like maintaining seaworthy vessels, properly maintaining equipment, and making sure crew members do not work on deck alone and unsupervised.

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