Flotation devices—Mae West style

Natural buoyancy will not support the weight of most humans well enough to keep them afloat when submerged in water. For that reason, historically, mankind has looked for ways to prevent people from drowning. Gourds, inflated animal skins, wood, cork, kapok fibers, rubber, and synthetics have been used to make water-related activities safer.

In 1852 the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring ships to carry life preservers. Two years later, the U.K.’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution started using a cork life belt invented by Navy Commander J. R. Ward. In 1928, the SS Vestris, a British passenger steamer, sank and many of the dead passenger were found floating face down. The victims were buoyant but inverted as a result of the life preserver design.*

That same year, Peter Markus patented the first inflatable life preserver. Markus, a merchant in Minnesota, was an avid boater and fisherman and was all too aware of boaters who went overboard and subsequently drowned. These boaters refused to wear large, bulky cork vests that hindered their movement. His life vest weighed less than two pounds, was significantly less bulky, and went over and behind the neck to keep the user’s face up and out of the water. It had a manual pull cord and used liquid carbon dioxide to inflate the vest’s air pockets.

In World War II, American and British servicemen were issued these inflatable life preservers. When the front air pockets of the life vest inflated, it gave the appearance of a buxom woman, leading the troops to give it the affectionate nickname the “Mae West” in honor of the well-endowed actress of the time. Today, the military uses a form of this life jacket, and the basic model life vest carried on airplanes is based on this design.

Staying afloat

This past winter has been particularly harsh for most of the U.S., and many people were excited when the warm weather finally arrived. June marks the official beginning of summer, and in many parts of the country, boating season is in full swing. This activity is not without potential danger. Even though modern personal flotation devices (PFDs) have come a long way, many individuals participating in water-based activities do not wear them. According to the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association’s facts about life jackets, 90 percent of drownings occur in inland waters, within a few feet of safety, and involve boats under 20 feet long: 80 percent of fatalities were not wearing a life jacket.

Hospital discharge status

Hospital discharge status

To examine the occurrence of injuries where a personal flotation device was involved in the National Trauma Data Bank® (NTDB®) research dataset for 2013, hospital admissions records were searched for the field “protective devices.” Specifically searched were records that contained a protective device field value of 3 (personal flotation device). A total of 100 records were found; 85 records contained a discharge status, including 74 patients discharged to home, three to acute care/rehab, and seven to skilled nursing facilities; one patient died. These patients were 62 percent male, on average 29.6 years of age, had an average hospital length of stay of 5.0 days, an intensive care unit length of stay of 5.9 days, an average injury severity score of 11.9, and were on the ventilator for an average of 6.2 days (see figure).

Of note in this dataset is the extremely low mortality. Remember that these are the victims who actually used their PFD. The author has personally seen individuals being fished out of Lake Michigan thanks to the automatically inflating PFD that they were wearing at the time; none of them had a problem looking like Mae West for a brief period of time.

Throughout the year, we will be highlighting these data through brief reports in the Bulletin. The National Trauma Data Bank Annual Report 2013 is available on the ACS website as a PDF file at www.ntdb.org. In addition, information about how to obtain NTDB data for more detailed study is available on the website. To learn more about submitting your trauma center’s data, contact Melanie L. Neal, Manager, NTDB, at mneal@facs.org.

Statistical support for this article has been provided by Chrystal Caden-Price, Data Analyst, and Alice Rollins, NTDB Coordinator.

*Morgan H. The history of life preservers. USA Today. Available at: http://traveltips.usatoday.com/history-life-preservers-21951.html. Accessed March 29, 2014.

Kelly K. America comes alive blog. September 15, 2011. Available at: http://americacomesalive.com/2011/09/15/mae-west-life-preserver-countless-owe-lives-to-it/. Accessed March 29, 2014.

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