Dressing For Success: Being Prepared for an Emergency

badge-and-mottoThis information is intended for adults who work on the water. The guidelines for recreational activities and safety gear for children are different and we encourage you to contact our colleagues at Transport Canada, who were invaluable to us in preparing this column.

Those who make a living on the water in Atlantic Canada deal with adverse weather conditions regularly.

Strong winds, rough seas and cold temperatures often make up a typical day at work. When dangerous conditions are a routine part of your regular work day, it’s easy to assume nothing will go wrong.

If an emergency does happen and you end up in the water, your safety equipment, and its condition, directly impacts your chances of survival.

In our previous articles we discussed Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB), communications equipment and flares. This article will focus on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and the importance of flotation, insulation and visibility when choosing what to buy.

Often, the safety gear that is kept onboard small vessels is what is outlined in the Small Fishing Vessel Inspection Regulations or Small Vessel Regulations.

These regulations fall under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001. Which regulation is followed depends on the size and use of the vessel. It is important to keep in mind that these regulations provide the minimum requirements and your gear can always exceed those outlined.

When immersed in water, your ability to breathe and delay the onset of hypothermia is vital in determining how long you can wait in the water for help to arrive. Without some form of flotation assistance your chances of drowning within the first several minutes of entering cold water is high. There are various types of flotation devices available for purchase such as life jackets and personal flotation devices (PFD).

Some people interchange the terms life jacket and PFD but there are distinct differences. While there are different designs, all life jackets are designed to keep a person afloat and have the ability to turn a person face up in the water even when they are unconscious. PFDs provide a balance of flotation, mobility and comfort and are designed to be worn constantly while boating.
All PFDs are buoyant and help in keeping your face above water, but not all have the ability to flip an unconscious person face up.

The Atlantic Ocean is cold, even in summer months. Wearing insulation or thermal protection can make the difference in whether you survive long enough to be rescued or succumb to the cold.
Survival Suits (abandonment immersion suits) provide good insulation and are waterproof. These suits are only available in three sizes so, depending on the fit, they can be bulky and difficult to work in. Although these suits do have some buoyancy, a life jacket should be worn before entering the water. Floater suits (anti-exposure work suits) are designed to provide both flotation and insulation. Many models are approved flotation devices and can have additional safety features such as inflatable flotation collars, straps to restrict water flow, hoods and/or beaver tail straps that provide added insulation in the groin area.

When immersed in cold water, every minute counts.

Wearing brightly coloured personal protective equipment, such as orange, yellow or red, can help rescuers spot you quickly. Many survival and floater suits are sold in dark colours but bright colours are available and may help you get spotted from farther away, especially at night or when visibility is reduced. As these types of suits are not waterproof, the type of clothing worn under the suit is also important.

A general rule when working in cold conditions is to dress in layers. The type of material you wear can greatly impact how much body heat you maintain. Your body loses heat 25 times faster in water than it does in air of the same temperature. This makes it easier to become hypothermic if immersed in cold water.

Wearing tight polypropylene or polyester light underwear as your first layer can help keep moisture away from your skin. Wool stays warm when it gets wet, reducing heat loss, making it a good choice to layer on next. Do not wear cotton. Cotton soaks up water and keeps it against the skin.

As the water evaporates, body heat is lost, increasing your chances of getting hypothermia more quickly than if you were wearing a different material such as wool.

There are many factors to consider when choosing what type of personal protective equipment to buy. Always buy equipment that fits, wear it properly, keep it clean and maintained and carry the right equipment for the job.

You can never be over prepared so practice putting on your personal protective equipment in both calm and rough conditions.

Whatever personal protective equipment you decide to buy won’t protect you if you can’t get it on or don’t know how to secure it properly.

For additional information regarding safety equipment and safe boating practices, please contact Transport Canada’s Office of Boating Safety at 1-800-230-3693.

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