What is a Life Jacket?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A life jacket is a safety device designed to keep someone's nose and mouth above water should the person fall overboard or be involved in a plane crash on water. Life jackets are required safety equipment on board boats and aircraft, and people are expected to wear them or have ready access to them in the event of an emergency. There are a number of lifejacket designs available for various applications and they are available through catalogs, as well as boating supply stores.

Boats should have one life jacket per person available at all times.
Boats should have one life jacket per person available at all times.

Life jackets strap securely to the body with adjustable straps to hold them snugly in place, even when people fall from heights. Chambers filled with air, foam core, cork, and other light substances force the person to the surface of the water and hold the person up, keeping the head above water. Life jackets protect people who are unconscious, injured, or fatigued, preventing them from slipping underwater and drowning while they wait for rescue.

Airlines must provide a life jacket for each baby and child who is aboard the flight.
Airlines must provide a life jacket for each baby and child who is aboard the flight.

Typically, life jackets are brightly colored to make them easier for rescuers to spot. Some have beacons designed to light up when activated, allowing for nighttime rescue, and the beacons can also be fitted with transponders to send a signal to another location. Additional fittings such as small pouches to hold energy bars or water may be available on some designs.

On small watercraft, it is generally recommended that people wear life jackets at all times. People can fall overboard unexpectedly or be washed over by waves, and wearing a life jacket is critical for safety. On large craft and cruise ships where life jackets are not required at all times, people should still make sure they know where their life jackets are and how to use them. On aircraft, under seat storage is used for life jackets so passengers can grab them quickly if a water landing is going to occur. A life jacket on a plane is usually inflatable. People leave the life jacket flat while in the aircraft, and inflate it after the exit the aircraft. This is intended to make it easier to evacuate.

It is important to periodically inspect life jackets to confirm the straps are working and check to see that the beacon and transponder are operational. Straps tend to weather and fray as a result of being exposed to water and sunlight and should be checked for signs of hard wear. If the straps appear to be damaged, they or the life jacket should be replaced for safety. People should also make a habit of adjusting their life jackets as soon as they put them on to position them firmly on the body.

Airline passengers will usually have access to a life jacket that's under their seat in case of emergency.
Airline passengers will usually have access to a life jacket that's under their seat in case of emergency.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Kat919

Make sure that you have the right kind of life vest! I didn't realize until recently that they actually come in several kinds. Two are common; one of those is for "serious" use, and the other is for use only near shore -- like swimming or boating in fairly shallow water.

The advantage of the near shore kind, besides that they are more comfortable and less expensive, is that they come in more sizes. The deep water kind only come in child and adult sizes. But the near shore ones come in many sizes, including one for infants under thirty pounds.

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