Lifejackets versus PFDs: New safety guidance - A Media Relations perspective

ISSN 2369-873X

16 April 2013
Posted by: Valerie Doucette

With fishing season just around the corner, it’s important to remember that lifejackets are required to be carried on board vessels. They are rarely worn at all times because most are seen as uncomfortable (consider the bulky keyhole-style lifejacket). Unlike lifejackets that flip people to a face up position in the water, personal flotation devices (PFDs) merely provide flotation and sometimes thermal protection. They’re often easier to wear and provide more freedom of movement, which is why more people opt to wear them.

Personal Flotation
Photo courtesy of
Transport Canada
Image of a Personal Flotation Device

If worn during the operation of the vessel, PFDs provide flotation in situations where there is limited time to don an approved lifejacket, as in cases where a person suddenly falls overboard. While lifejackets are still superior to PFDs due to their rigorous testing, approval standards and their ability to turn an unconscious person in the water to a face-up position, PFDs are nonetheless useful aids that serve to keep a person afloat. Wearing a PFD at all times is therefore a helpful safety measure.

But failing to wear a PFD during a vessel's operation is nothing new. The TSB has flagged this safety concern to the Canadian fishing community through a number of investigations, such as the Silver Angel, the Craig and Justin, Melina & Keith II, and Shannon Dawn and Rachel M. Although PFDs are not currently required to be carried or worn on board vessels, they are recommended because of the large percentage of boating fatalities that result from people falling overboard.

New guidance from Transport Canada

A few months ago, Transport Canada released a new Ship Safety Bulletin (SSB) on wearing flotation devices on board small non-pleasure craft and small commercial fishing vessels. Replacing a previous bulletin, this one breaks new ground by allowing certain categories of vessels to carry PFDs instead of lifejackets. It also requires that everyone aboard wear a PFD at all times while on deck of operating vessels. The criteria for the vessels that are permitted to carry approved PFDs instead of approved lifejackets, as well as more detail regarding the benefits of lifejackets and PFDs, are set out in the SSB.

Although there is still a great deal of progress to be made in the industry regarding the consistent wearing of flotation devices during vessel operations, this Safety Bulletin is an important step towards improving the safety of mariners.

Image of Valerie Doucette

With a Masters in Communication Studies and a passion for writing and educational technology, Valerie Doucette joined the TSB’s Marine Investigation Branch in 2010 as a Report Standards Officer. She enjoys social media, interior design, running and is a new mom.

Date modified: