How to Choose a Lifejacket

In this article, Karl Pentin, Director of Safety Marine, looks at the different classifications, specifications and uses for lifejackets and buoyancy aids to help you choose the best product for your vessel or crew.  We also summarise the new international standard and its implications.

All lifejackets and buoyancy aids have to be CE-marked. This shows that the product has been tested and approved to European standards. These standards divide the products into different Newton classes. Each Newton class is a European standard with its own designated number, such as EN396. Newton is the unit for force and the abbreviation for it is ‘N’.

How much buoyancy do we need to float?

Most fully-grown adults only need 20-30N of buoyancy to float, with or without clothing. This may not seem like much until you remember that humans are essentially made up of 70 per cent water, and therefore we all have a tendency to be naturally buoyant. Even a 20 stone man will not usually ‘sink like a stone’, as long as he remains calm, lies on his back, holds his breath and keeps his arms by his sides.

A 50N buoyancy aid will therefore keep you afloat with a greater safety margin than having no additional buoyancy. However, if you wish to be turned over in the water from face down to face up (for example, if you are unconscious), you will need a greater force and higher Newton value.

How are Lifejackets and Buoyancy Aids Classified?

50N Buoyancy Aids – EN393 (11lbs / 5.5kg of buoyancy)

These products are designed for competent swimmers, and are suitable for use in sheltered waters. They will only provide support to a conscious person who can normally help themselves.

• Most common uses are active water sports such as dinghy sailing, board sports, kayaking, and on personal water craft (jet skis).
• A good quality 50N buoyancy aid can usually be bought for less than £50
• There are many styles and fits to suit the requirements of most water sports activities.

100 Newton Lifejacket – EN395 (23lbs / 11kg of buoyancy)

These lifejackets are designed for both swimmers and non-swimmers and are suitable for use around inshore and coastal waters. They give a reasonable assurance of safety from drowning in relatively calm waters.

• These products are NOT guaranteed to self-right an unconscious person wearing waterproof clothing and should not be expected to protect the airway of an unconscious person in rough water.
• Under EU regulations, these lifejackets must be constructed out of a bright coloured fabric with 100cm2 of SOLAS reflective tape stitched to the front and provided with a whistle for attracting attention.
• They are most commonly used on inland waterways and lakes or on the coast by craft operating reasonably close to shore in fair weather and fair sea conditions.
• These jackets are often constructed in a foam waistcoat-style, making them simple to fit and relatively maintenance-free.
• Prices are around £30 to £40.

150N Lifejacket – EN396 (33lbs / 16kg of buoyancy)

These lifejackets are suitable for both swimmers and non-swimmers, and are designed for use in inshore as well as offshore and in all but the most severe conditions.

• They give reasonable assurance of safety from drowning, to a person not fully capable of helping themselves (ie someone unconscious).
• However they may not immediately self-right an unconscious person wearing heavy waterproof clothing that might trap air that could counter-act the normal righting moment of the lifejacket’s buoyancy.
• These lifejackets can be constructed out of foam (looking very similar to the orange foam lifejackets seen on ferries), or they can be of a low profile gas inflation design.
• Under EU regulations, these jackets must be constructed out of a bright coloured fabric (when inflated) with 300cm2 of SOLAS reflective tape stuck to the front and provided with a whistle for attracting attention.
• The EN396 150N gas inflation model lifejacket is the most popular type sold in the UK, particularly for leisure craft such as yachts and motor cruisers where their lower profile design is valued for being unobtrusive and easy to wear.
• They can be supplied in both manual activation (inflated by pulling a toggle) and automatic water-activated models which inflate when they are submersed in water.

275 Newton Lifejacket - EN399 (62lbs / 28kg of buoyancy)

These lifejackets are suitable for both swimmers and non-swimmers and are designed to provide a high performance device for offshore and severe conditions, when maximum protection is required or where heavy waterproof clothing is worn that can trap air.

• These products give improved assurance of safety from drowning, to people who are not able to help themselves (ie unconscious).
• While they cannot be guaranteed to immediately self-right an unconscious person wearing heavy waterproofs that might trap air, the buoyancy that they provide should ensure that they will do so in the majority of cases.
• Under EU regulations, these products must be constructed out of a brightly coloured fabric (when inflated) with 300cm2 of SOLAS reflective tape stuck to the front and provided with a whistle for attracting attention.
• The 275N gas inflation model lifejacket is popular on leisure vessels that travel further offshore or on ocean passages in challenging conditions and also by smaller commercial operators that do not need to comply with full SOLAS lifejacket regulations but want the assurance that the improved performance offers.
• The low profile design is also valued for being unobtrusive.
• These jackets are normally supplied in automatic water-activated models which inflate when they are submersed in water.

How are 160N, 175N and 190N Lifejacket Models Classified?

The EU regulations set minimum standards for each class of lifejacket or buoyancy aid. A 150N lifejacket must therefore offer 150N as a minimum.

However, some manufacturers will offer lifejackets with 160N, 175N or even 190N of buoyancy. In fact the majority of 150N gas inflation lifejackets sold in the UK actually provide more than the minimum 150N indicated on the label.

When it comes to getting the lifejacket through the official testing and certification under the appropriate EN standard, a lifejacket will only ever be allowed to be classed as 150N on the label because a buoyancy of 160N or 190N are not recognised as separate classifications. That means because these lifejackets do not meet the performance of the next official standard up, 275N, they will always have to fall into the 150N class.

What is the New ISO 12402 Lifejacket Standard?

Government authorities around the world have historically set their own standards for lifejacket performance and classifications. This has caused confusion and ambiguity about what the most suitable type of lifejacket is for a particular environment or activity, and it was very hard to compare like-for-like.

The EU has standardised the classifications for lifejackets and buoyancy aids into the now accepted EN classes of 50N, 100N, 150N and 275N. This has helped water sports and boating enthusiasts enormously by providing a clear indication of the most suitable type of lifejacket for a particular activity.

The EN classifications developed by the EU are now widely accepted as the most suitable classifications for lifejackets and buoyancy aids across the world and it was almost inevitable that a truly international standard would then be developed that all countries would recognise.

The only framework that this international lifejacket and buoyancy aid standard could be developed under was the International Standards Organisation (ISO), and after many years of development, the initial ISO 12402 standard was proposed in 2006.

What does the New ISO Performance Standard Include?

The ISO standard sets out very similar performance standards to the existing EN classifications in use across Europe, and breaks the specifications down into five main parts applicable to leisure and commercial vessels:

• Part 1: Life jackets for seagoing ships (ie SOLAS commercial ships)
• Part 2: Life jackets, performance level 275
• Part 3: Life jackets, performance level 150
• Part 4: Life jackets, performance level 100
• Part 5: Buoyancy aids level 50

The ISO 12402 standard is intended to serve as a guide for all manufacturers worldwide, as well as purchasers, and users of the safety equipment to ensure that the products provide an effective standard of performance in use.

Some of the main differences over the existing EN standards fall within the area of materials and testing. Parts 7-9 of the ISO 12402 standard outline these new requirements:

• Part 7: Materials and components (safety requirements and test methods)
• Part 8: Accessories (safety requirements and test methods)
• Part 9: Test methods

The ISO 12402 standard has now been published in draft form as the details of several of the parts surrounding the testing requirements have yet to be finalised internationally and the whole standard will subsequently require ratification by all parties.

What are the Implications for Manufacturers?

With the core of the specification complete, several manufacturers are now starting to produce lifejackets that are designed to conform to the new ISO 12402 standard. However from a legal standpoint they are not specifically marketing them as exact ISO 12402 specification lifejackets but rather under the existing EN396 standard for the time being.

For more advice about choosing lifejackets and buoyancy aids, contact the Safety Marine technical team on advice@safety-marine.co.uk or call +44 (0)2380 226300.

 

The Beacon Logo

For the latest marine safety news each month, regulation changes and invaluable practical safety advice, simply submit your email address.