Issue 38, Jun 2018 Safety of lifejackets that have kapok-filling or cotton straps
This safety bulletin is for
- New Zealand ship owners, masters and crew
- Maritime NZ recognised surveyors
- Maritime NZ maritime officers, investigators and technical advisors
In the past, lifejackets made with kapok filling and/or cotton straps were widely used in New Zealand and many are still being used today.
These lifejackets may have complied with the Standard when they were made. However, lifejackets made with these materials are known to deteriorate over time, even if they are unused and look new. These lifejackets are now too old, may not keep people afloat in an emergency and should be replaced as soon as possible.
The kapok filling in old lifejackets is contained within a plastic liner. Over time the plastic liner deteriorates and cracks, allowing the kapok to absorb water. Wet kapok is no longer buoyant. In an emergency an old kapok-filled lifejacket may not keep people afloat.
Cotton straps rot over time, even if a lifejacket is not used. In an emergency these cotton straps can tear or break off. When this happens the lifejacket will not stay attached to the person wearing it, and will no longer help to keep them afloat in the water.
How to identify a lifejacket with kapok filling or cotton straps
Kapok is cotton-like fluff from the kapok tree. In the past it was often used to fill cushions and pillows.
A lifejacket with kapok filling will feel a bit like a cushion when it is squeezed. It will feel soft and spongy. It will feel different to a foam-filled lifejacket, which will feel more firm and solid when squeezed.
If you are not sure if the straps on a lifejacket are cotton, one way to check is the burn test. Dry cotton strap will burn to a fine ash and smell a bit like burning paper. Synthetic strap will shrink back and harden when exposed to flame, and smell like burning plastic when it burns. It’s not possible to judge a lifejacket by how it looks. An old lifejacket might be well stored and look in perfect condition. But if it has kapok filling or cotton straps it must be discarded. If you are not sure about whether the filling is kapok or the straps are cotton, you should discard the lifejacket.
What you should do
Operators, masters and crew should:
- immediately check all lifejackets on their vessel(s)
- as soon as possible replace any lifejackets that have kapok filling or cotton straps with new lifejackets
- make sure that lifejackets comply with Maritime Rules Part 42A. In most cases this means they must meet the current New Zealand Standard NZS 5823: 2005
- if old lifejackets are replaced with second-hand lifejackets, make sure that they are within the age period recommended by the manufacturer
- remove lifejackets with kapok filling or cotton straps from the vessel and destroy them so that they cannot be re-used or on-sold
- check the condition of all lifejackets for cuts, fraying or damage, even if you believe they are not kapok-filled or don’t have cotton straps.