The Role of Immersion Suits in Case of Emergency


With the recent tragedy of the MT Sanchi that led to the loss of 32 crew members, a closer look at safety procedures and measures in place to avoid such occurrences is the need of the hour.

This article examines the Immersion Suit and its purpose in case one needs to abandon ship.

In today’s times, an immersion suit is one of the most important necessities on ships and oilrigs where a person might need something to protect him from the hazards of water. Hypothermia is a major cause of death at sea, resulting in about 800 casualties annually, most of which are reported as drownings.

Image Courtesy: Traconed

An immersion suit, or survival suit (or more specifically an immersion survival suit) is made of neoprene, a type of rubber that is completely waterproof and has an ability to withstand extreme temperatures of water and fire. The immersion suit fits the person’s body completely without exposing a single part in the water. It also has a protective hood to cover the head and gloves to cover the hands. This is a special type of waterproof dry suit that protects the wearer from hypothermia from immersion in cold water, after abandoning a sinking or capsized vessel, especially in the open ocean. They usually have built-on feet (boots), and a hood, and either built-on gloves or watertight wrist seals.

The following are the SOLAS Regulations for Immersion Suits:

  • Each person on board the ship must have his/her own personal immersion suit. Also, extra immersion suits should be provided for the watchkeepers
  • Immersion Suits may be of the kinds that are Insulated, Un-insulated, wearable with life jacket (all should have sufficient buoyancy)
  • Made of waterproof material
  • Internationally RED in color which is highly visible. Note that most other LSA equipment is bright ORANGE
  • The immersion suit should be unpacked and donned within a time frame of 2 minutes without any external help or assistance
  • The individual must be able to jump from a height of at least 4.5 meters into water without injury to life of any damage to the immersion suit
  • The suit should be able to cover the whole body except the face. Hands should be covered unless permanently attached gloves are provided
  • Retro-reflective tapes must be fitted
  • It shall not sustain burning or continue to melt after being totally enveloped in a fire for a period of 2 seconds
  • Normal work must be able to be carried out upon wearing
  • The wearer should be capable of climbing up and down a vertical ladder of at least 5 meters in length
  • The wearer must be able to swim a short distance
  • The immersion suit is worn in cold weather when the temperature is below the freezing point
  • The suit does not allow the body temperature to drop by more than 2 degrees when immersed for a period of 6 hours when the water temperature is between 0 and 2 degrees
  • The wearer of the suit, with or without the lifejacket shall be able to turn from a face down position to a face-up position in not more than 5 seconds
  • If a lifejacket is required along with the immersion suit, then it should be worn over the immersion suit and without assistance
Image Courtesy: AMPS

There are basically three types of immersion suits. The main types can be described as follows:

• The first type of a survival suit is something that is worn by fishermen who fish in extremely cold temperatures. These fishermen keep wearing the immersion suit continuously in order to make sure that their bodies do not lose heat and are kept continuously warm and insulated.

• The second type of rescue suit is the one that is kept on all ships, boats and oil rigs. It is a compulsory requirement without which workers cannot be expected to work in the ship or oil rigs. Only at the time of the critical situation, such immersion suits are worn by the workers.

• The third and final type of immersion suit is known as the Inflatable Immersion Suit. But unlike the two previous immersion suits, this rescue suit does not fully cover the person’s body. The inflated suit only covers a person’s hands and legs, thus helping to keep the person afloat and safe in emergency situations. Because of the compactness of the suit, this suit is easier to carry and transport than the previous two suits mentioned.

Certain immersion suits are also in-built with an emergency torch, a whistle and a tagline that can be attached to the suit of the person who is being rescued. This tagline, also known as the buddy line, is provided to make sure that all the people are together and no person gets lost while in the water.

The first record of a survival suit was in 1930 when a New York firm American Life Suit Corporation offered merchant and fishing firms what it called a safety suit for crews of ocean vessels. The suit came packed in a small box and was put on like a boilersuit.

The ancestor of these suits was already invented in 1872 by Clark S Merriman to rescue steamship passengers. It was made from rubber sheeting and became famous by the swim records of Paul Boyton. It was essentially a pair of rubber pants and shirt cinched tight at the waist with a steel band and strap. Within the suit were five air pockets the wearer could inflate by mouth through hoses.

Similar to modern-day drysuits, the suit also kept its wearer dry. This essentially allowed him to float on his back, using a double-sided paddle to propel himself, feet-forward. Additionally he could attach a small sail to save stamina while slowly drifting to shore (because neither emergency radio transmitters nor rescue helicopters were invented yet).

The first immersion suit to gain USCG approval was invented by Gunnar Guddal. Eventually the suit became accepted as essential safety gear.

In today’s day and age, it is not only imperative to have safety measures at hand, but also, ensure proper training is given so that it may be utilised properly and effectively. In case of emergencies, awareness coupled with proper technology and equipment can be the difference between life and death.

Sea News Feature, January 23