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The Labels are Coming, the Labels are Coming!

You will want something a little better than this.


CCA Safety Moment for October 2020

Chuck Hawley, San Francisco Station

As we’ve discussed in previous Safety Moments, there has been a lengthy effort to “harmonize” the life jacket standards of the U.S. and Canada so that products can be sold in both markets. This has been a long and complicated process, as the writing of standards frequently is, but the first consumer-facing aspect of this effort will be current life jacket designs with radically new labels describing their size, life-saving potential, and prohibited uses. These labels are similar to those used on ISO-compliant life jackets that are found in Europe, Oceana, and other parts of the world.

After this initial stage of having existing life jacket designs updated with modern labels, new life jacket designs created under a new UL standard (UL 12402) will begin to enter the market, and these life jackets may have features and innovations which are not currently allowed under the older UL standards. At least that is the hope.

It was also anticipated that the new UL standard would allow inflatables to be worn by younger boaters (13-15 years old) and that a lower buoyancy “flotation aid” would be allowed to be worn in certain conditions. This “Level 50” flotation aid would have about 70% of the buoyancy that the current Type II and Type III vests offer, or about 11.2# of buoyant force. Both of these changes require a rewriting of federal law, and are not likely to happen anytime soon.

So, what are the changes to the life jacket labels that we’ll be seeing (or perhaps are already seeing)? Here’s a summary:

  1. There are no life jacket “types” anymore. This switch in how life jackets are categorized has been underway for about 6 years, although it continues to be a slow transition, and both the old “type” and the new “level” systems of classification will be in the market simultaneously a long time.
  2. The new “levels” of life jacket performance are related to the buoyancy of the life jacket in Newtons, where a Newton is approximately ¼ of a pound of force. The “levels” associated with the new life jackets are 50 (70), 100, 150, and 275.
  3. How do these “levels” compare with our old life jackets? Here’s an approximate cheat-sheet:
    • Type II and Type III vests (around 16# of buoyancy) are similar to Level 70.
    • Type I life jackets (22-24# of buoyancy) are similar to Level 100.
    • “Offshore” inflatables (33-35# buoyancy) are similar to Level 150.
    • Non-CG-approved life vests used in water ski competitions (7-11# buoyancy) are similar to Level 50.
    • Workman’s life jackets used in some maritime jobs (60# of buoyancy) are similar to Level 275 performance.
  4. The labels are more pictorial and multilingual. However, not everyone will immediately be able to determine what the pictures are trying to convey. A helpful placard has been created to help explain the labels during the transition period.
  5. The key information is largely the same as it was in previous labels. That information includes:
    • Sizing information.
    • The Level, which can be thought of as the overall life-saving potential of the life jacket (more is better).
    • An icon showing various sea conditions and proximity to rescue, based on the level of the device.
    • Turning ability: the ability to turn an unconscious wearer face up.
    • Prohibited use information. This is largely related to high-impact sports like jet skis and white water rafting where the life jacket may be inappropriate for those uses.
    • Care and maintenance and manufacturer’s information (which I have omitted for simplicity).
  6. Finally, there’s also a hang-tag which is intended to help customers understand the labels and to select the correct life jacket. The hang-tag also includes some basic boating safety information, so it’s attempting to do a lot of work in a few square inches:

The effort to harmonize the life jacket performance standards and labels has been going on for over 20 years, and it’s still confusing and a work in progress. You’ll find both dated and flat-out incorrect information on the web sites of boating safety organizations. Your best bet is to keep informed through boating magazines, boat shows, and informed speakers and experts. It IS confusing...