When is it safe to use a winch, and when are you better off using a hoist? The short answer to this question is that a winch and hoist should not be used interchangeably. Hoists are designed for lifting loads while winches are intended only for pulling. But if you’ve ever pulled a car out of a deep ditch or up a slope, you know that tasks in the real world don’t always divide neatly into categories like lifting and pulling. If you understand the difference between a winch and a hoist, you’ll be in a better position to know which is best for the job at hand.
Hoists and winches have a lot in common: they both use pulleys and cables to help you move heavy loads, and both give you a mechanical advantage. But under the surface they’re constructed differently.
If you think back to high school physics, you may remember that force is equal to mass times acceleration. Gravity causes a lot of acceleration – the force needed to lift a load is many times more than what you need to pull the same load along level ground (provided it has wheels to reduce friction). For this reason, all the components of a hoist – mounting, brake, hooks and the cable itself – are designed to be sturdier than those of a winch so that it can handle greater forces.
Lifting a heavy load is much more dangerous than pulling it. If anyone is standing underneath a falling load they risk serious injury or death, and even if people stay clear of the area, you risk doing a lot of damage to the load itself if it falls. A winch uses a dynamic braking system, meaning that the gears themselves provide enough resistance to act as a brake when used as intended. The gears on a winch can easily be stripped if you use it to hoist, causing it to unwind and drop the load even if the cable itself doesn’t break. A hoist uses a mechanical locking brake, which means that if you stop lifting, the load will stay suspended. Hoists also include safety features such as a load-limiting switch that will not allow you to lift a load that is too heavy for the hoist to handle.
So, what about those jobs that fall somewhere between pulling and lifting? Here are some factors to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to use a winch:
- Don’t use a winch to pull a load up a slope of more than 45 degrees.
- Don’t lift any load more than shoulder height using a winch.
- Always make sure the device you’re using is rated for the load you want to move. If you’re working against gravity, the force will be much higher.
- Be especially safety-conscious if you’re using a come-along. An electric winch can often be operated remotely, but you will be standing right next to the cable if you’re using a hand winch.
There are some winches that are designed to be used as hoists too. These tools have locking brakes and if there is a freespool mechanism, it can be disabled for hoisting. Don’t assume you can use a winch for hoisting unless the manufacturer’s instructions make it clear that you can.
You may be tempted to dismiss manufacturers’ safety warnings as nothing more than a strategy to avoid lawsuits, but rest assured that those warnings are there for good reasons. Knowing your tools and using them only for their intended purposes can save your life.