PFD or Lifejacket?

So, what Personal Floatation Device (PFD) or Lifejacket is required for each crew member of your Rescue Boat, or for your passengers, in order to be compliant?

These are common question that are posed to Instructors and staff at Raven Rescue Safety Medical, on courses as well as during Safety Consultations. And with so many devices on the market, with different design standards, and certifications, the answers are not always easy or clear. This is compounded by the overlapping certifications of various devices. In this edition of the Raven RSM Knowledge Hub, the hope is to clear up some common misconceptions, and provide clarity when it comes to PFD or Lifejacket selection in the context of operating or crewing a boat. This is critical knowledge for those of you who own, operate, or crew any rescue boat.

The Boat

Any vessel, boat, or ship on any waterway in Canada falls under the Canada Shipping Act. Transport Canada is the agency responsible for administering all aspect of Ship safety in Canada including the certification of Life Saving Appliances (PFDs and Lifejackets). There are different requirements for vessels and boats based on their size, purpose, and the waters that they travel on. Any boat or vessel operated for recreation is known as a Pleasure Craft. Equipment requirements, including PFD or Lifejacket requirements are found in the Safe Boating Guide, published by Transport Canada. One common mistake is that agencies apply the Safe Boating Guide to a Commercial Vessels.

Any boat operated for purposes other than recreation is known as a non-pleasure craft. This is the same as a workboat or a  commercial vessel, and as a result, these boats, regardless of size, have different equipment requirements. These regulations and requirements are found in the Small Vessel Regulations. The Small Vessel Regulations are far more stringent than those found in the Safe Boating Guide.


Lifejackets provide more flotation in water than most PFDs. Lifejackets come only in red, orange, and yellow so you are more visible while in water.

There are three Canadian-approved types:

1. Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) lifejackets meet very high-performance standards and are approved for all vessels. They:

  • turn you on your back in seconds to keep your face out of the water, even if you are unconscious.
  • come in two sizes — over 32 kg (70 lbs.) or less than 32 kg.
  • are available in comfortable and compact inflatable styles that can be automatically, manually, or orally inflated.

2. Standard Type lifejackets are approved for all vessels, except SOLAS vessels. They:

  • turn you on your back to keep your face out of the water, even if you are unconscious.
  • come in two sizes — over 40 kg (88 lbs.) or less than 40 kg.

3. Small Vessel lifejackets are approved for small vessels. They:

  • have less flotation than Standard Type lifejackets.
  • turn you on your back but may do so more slowly.
  • come in two models — keyhole and vest and come in three sizes.

Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs)

PFDs are any other Transport Canada approved device, that does not meet the standard of Lifejacket.

PFDs are categorized as follows:

  • Vest Style
  • Pouch Style
  • Inherently Buoyant

The Minimum buoyancy for a PFD in Canada is 69 Newtons, or 15.5 pounds of buoyancy. Inflatables, and Lifejackets are as high as 150 Newtons, or 34 pounds of buoyancy.

PFDs come in many types, sizes, and colours. Not all are red, orange, or yellow; but it is a good idea to choose these colours to be more visible when in water.

Choose a PFD based on your needs and your activity. If you are operating at high speeds, look for a PFD with three or more chest belts for security.

If you are operating in cold water (less than 15°C), choose a PFD that offers thermal protection, or combine the PFD with an immersion suit suitable for the conditions.

Important notes on PFDs in Canada: Typing (Type I, II, III, V) is not done in the Canadian Standards. This is a United States Coast Guard system.

For PFDs and Lifejackets, the certification and approval is clearly labeled on the product data stamp.

Exemptions for Common Practice

It should be noted that only Lifejackets satisfy the requirements for Commercial Vessels in Canada. However, it is unreasonable for the average crew member to wear a Lifejacket and still be able to perform their duties effectively, so, there is more to it:

Transport Canada Safety Bulletin No.06/2012 provides the context and exemptions for how PFDs can be used in lieu of Lifejackets in specific situations. These are summarized below.

PFDs can be worn in lieu of Lifejackets as long as the following conditions are met:

Only on the Following Vessels:

  • Passenger vessels of 8.5 meters or less in length
    • Work boats of 12 meters or less in length
    • Fishing vessels of 12.2 meters or less in length
    • Requires that if PFDs are used instead of carrying approved lifejackets, then they must be worn at all times when the vessel is operating.
  • Limits the scope to vessels operating within Near Coastal Voyages, Class 2.
  • Accepts approved waist length bomber style PFDs that are designed to provide thermal protection.
  • Accepts most approved PFDs in lieu of lifejackets on certain small vessels operating in Sheltered Waters or within 2 nautical miles (3.704 km) from shore on a lake or river, provided that the conditions set out in this Bulletin are met.
  • Discourages the use of inflatable flotation devices requiring two steps to put on, on passenger vessels.
  • Be fitted with retro-reflective tape and a whistle.
  • Be of a highly visible colour (yellow, orange or red). For inflatable devices, thisrefers to the colour of the internal bladder, not the external cover.

It should also be noted that vessels operating in water temperatures colder than 15 degrees Celsius should also have equipment and procedures to reduce the risk of hypothermia.

Advice from Raven

For normal boat operations on static water in near coastal waters, Raven recommends any approved device as mentioned above. Special attention should be made to inflatable PFDs as there are situations that could delay the automatic inflation, or inflate the device when the user is not yet in the water.

For situation where the boat will operated in or near Swiftwater, or with any conditions that increase the chance of a crew overboard situation, Raven recommends a purpose-built Swiftwater rescue style PFD. These devices provide much better fit, more security, and it is far easier for the user to swim, and reboard a vessel. These devices also allow for personal equipment stowage, and are generally preferred by rescue professionals.


So, what device does your crew need to have? Well as long as you are operating within 2 Nautical Miles from shore, you may wear a Transport Canada approved PFD with thermal protection, provided that the other conditions in the Safety Bulletin are met, and you are compliant. Certain situations may require the vessel equipment to also include Lifejackets. As always,  follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and recommendations. If in doubt, contact the helpful staff at Raven Rescue Safety Medical for friendly advice and answers.

Stay tuned for more information regarding lifejackets and PFDs for workers or responders operating near water, and not in a boat…

Stay Safe!

Steve Ruskay

Steve Ruskay

Steve Ruskay is a Water Rescue Instructor for Raven Rescue Safety Medical. He is also Professional Firefighter, and a member of a water rescue team. Steve has captained a 40-passenger vessel on Georgian Bay, operated passenger vessels in Antarctica, and sailed across the Drake Passage.