Important safety message about kapok lifejackets

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 53, July 2018

Maritime NZ has issued a safety bulletin to warn the maritime sector that lifejackets with kapok-filling or cotton straps could fail when used. These lifejackets are unsafe and should be replaced with new lifejackets as soon as possible. Old unsafe lifejackets should be destroyed so that they cannot be re-used or on-sold.

This safety bulletin is for

  • New Zealand ship owners, masters and crew
  • Maritime NZ recognised surveyors
  • Maritime NZ maritime officers, investigators and technical advisors

Safety risk

In the past, lifejackets made with kapok filling and/or cotton straps were widely used in New Zealand and many are still being used today.

These lifejackets may have complied with the Standard when they were made. However, lifejackets made with these materials are known to deteriorate over time, even if they are unused and look new. These lifejackets are now too old, may not keep people afloat in an emergency and should be replaced as soon as possible.

Kapok filling

The kapok filling in old lifejackets is contained within a plastic liner. Over time the plastic liner deteriorates and cracks, allowing the kapok to absorb water. Wet kapok is no longer buoyant. In an emergency an old kapok-filled lifejacket may not keep people afloat.

Cotton straps

Cotton straps rot over time, even if a lifejacket is not used. In an emergency these cotton straps can tear or break off. When this happens the lifejacket will not stay attached to the person wearing it, and will no longer help to keep them afloat in the water.

How to identify a lifejacket with kapok filling or cotton straps

lifjacket on a deck
A lifejacket with kapok filling and cotton straps will look like this.

Kapok is cotton-like fluff from the kapok tree. In the past it was often used to fill cushions and pillows. A lifejacket with kapok filling will feel a bit like a cushion when it is squeezed. It will feel soft and spongy. It will feel different to a foam-filled lifejacket, which will feel more firm and solid when squeezed.

If you are not sure if the straps on a lifejacket are cotton, one way to check is the burn test. Dry cotton strap will burn to a fine ash and smell a bit like burning paper. Synthetic strap will shrink back and harden when exposed to flame, and smell like burning plastic when it burns.

It’s not possible to judge a lifejacket by how it looks. An old lifejacket might be well stored and look in perfect condition. But if it has kapok filling or cotton straps it must be discarded. If you are not sure about whether the filling is kapok or the straps are cotton, you should discard the life jacket.

What you should do

Operators, masters and crew should:

  • immediately check all lifejackets on their vessel(s)
  • as soon as possible replace any lifejackets that have kapok filling or cotton straps with new lifejackets
  • make sure that lifejackets comply with Maritime Rules Part 42A. In most cases this means they must meet the current New Zealand Standard NZS 5823: 2005
  • if old lifejackets are replaced with second-hand lifejackets, make sure that they are within the age period recommended by the manufacturer
  • remove lifejackets with kapok filling or cotton straps from the vessel and destroy them so that they cannot be re-used or on-sold
  • check the condition of all lifejackets for cuts, fraying or damage, even if you believe they are not kapok-filled or don’t have cotton straps.

Contact us for more help

If you have any questions about this safety update, please contact our Wellington office.

New Zealand (toll free): 0508 225 522
Calling from outside New Zealand: +64 4 473 0111


Tell us what you need help with and remember to include your contact details (email address and phone numbers).

Back to index

Cover of Issue 53
Return to the index for Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 53, July 2018
Return to index
Previous: Improving maritime safety in the Pacific
Next: Float-free EPIRBs for fishing vessels