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Many workers consider Personal Floatation Devices (PFD's) to be encumbrances that impede the job to be done. It seems few people want to wear them while working, However, PFD's are designed for only one purpose, and that is to help save a life when the unexpected happens. They are similar to full-body harnesses and shock absorbing lanyards in this respect. There is only one time when they are needed, and that is when your life depends on them.

Often workers believe they do not need this lifesaving equipment because they are careful around water, are strong swimmers and can care for themselves. But let's looks at some real facts. In 1995 (the most recent data available) fishermen held the distinction of having the most workplace fatalities. These workers understand water hazards, and yet 81% of the deaths occurred by drowning. Why would your profession be any better?

Let's say you work near the water and fall in fully clothed. Once your clothing and boots are water soaked, you'll weigh at least an extra 15-25 pounds. You may be wearing a tool belt as well, adding another 20 pounds or so. Now you are trying to keep your head and an extra 35 pounds above water-plus, it's hard to kick because the water drags on your pants and shoes. At this point, it matters little how strong a swimmer you are; you can hardly hold your head above water! In very cold water, the unexpected plunge also generates an involuntary reaction of gasping for air. If you gasp while you are under the surface, your lungs will fill with water, causing you to panic, sink, and may delay rescue until it is too late.

PFD's are designed to keep you afloat when you are unable to do so for some reason. Those who work near water, on or around scaffolding, floats, or other equipment, and fall into the water, can easily strike something on way down, rendering them unconscious. Without consciousness and being burdened by heavy clothing, they're like "a rock looking for the bottom."

All personal floatation devices must meet US Coast Guard (USCG) specifications, and they must have a USCG label attached. If yours does not, take no chances. Remove it from service and get an approved PFD. There are five types of PFD's approved by the Coast Guard:

Type I: These are sleeveless jackets designed to turn even an unconscious person face-up. They are primarily used for off-shore operations, and are particularly useful for non-swimmers.

Type II: These are vests, designed to turn a person from face down to face-up or slightly backward position. They are more appropriate for operations closer to shore. Uses include shipyard, construction and other close to shore operations

Type III: This class includes float coats and vests when a quick rescue is probable. They can help a conscious person stay afloat. Uses include shipyard and construction operations.

Type IV: These are cushions or rings and are not designed to be worn, but to be thrown to a person and held, pending an immediate rescue.

Type V: These special use PFD's have approval conditions listed on the restricted USCG label. The most common of these include work vests and those with hypothermia protection.

Always keep your PFD fastened! If you and an unfastened vest fall into the water, you may slip out of the sleeves as you flounder, and sink-while the vest floats. Wear this protection correctly, make sure it fits properly, and keep it in good condition. It can save you from a watery grave!