The Difference Between a Winch and Hoist and Why It Matters

Title of Winch and Hoist difference blog

If you’re searching for fall rescue and recovery equipment, chances are you’ve seen some terminology that may have left you scratching your head and wondering what, exactly, is the difference between a winch and hoist?

At first glance, they seem fairly interchangeable (and, indeed, many manufacturers and distributors are using them willy-nilly). So, if whatever difference between the two may exist is so negligible, does it really matter?

Well, it turns out, there is a difference. And while it may be a technical one, that difference could be important to buyers and users when it comes time to conduct a confined space rescue.

First, let’s stop and take a look at what separates winch from hoist. 

What is a Fall Protection Hoist?

While there are more minute differences between winches and hoists, the key one is this: a fall protection hoists lifts its load vertically while conducting a confined space rescue.

Vertical-entry confined spaces like manholes follow different procedures for entry, operations, egress, and rescue than horizontal-entry confined spaces. It makes sense, then, that hoists operate in a specific way to suit those operations. 

Fall protection hoists are designed to attach to an overhead anchorage, such as our Davit or LifeGuard units. In the event of a rescue operation, the fallen worker is hooked into the hoist below the confined space entrance and pulled to safety.

The arm of the hoist is made to be cranked smoothly and continuously while lifting or lowering. Imagine hanging freely on a vertical line while the lifting stops and starts. That’s just begging for further injury.

Pelsue equipment is designed to work with fall protection hoists and not winches (they also work with self-retracting lifelines, which—when used for fall recovery—operate more like a hoist). Compatibility is a key consideration for buyers, which we discuss more below.

To sum up: the defining features of a hoist are that it lifts attached workers along a vertical axis and it is continuously cranked, meaning that they lift and lower workers smoothly. 

What is a Fall Protection Winch?

Reading some of the defining factors of a hoist may make it much easier to guess the definition of a fall protection winch: technically, a winch moves the attached worker horizontally along the path to the exit.

If you were to compare images of fall protection hoists with those of fall protection winches, you might notice that they look pretty much exactly the same. That’s because many manufacturers and distributors use “winch” and “hoist” interchangeably.

Further complicating matters is that anchorages and tools exist which allow users to mount hoists sideways: turning a hoist which usually operates vertically into a functional winch.

Some users have experience using winches attached to vehicle hitches to do things like removing tree stumps or pulling out stuck large equipment. 

These winches have an important difference from most fall protection winches: they use a ratchet-like crank to pull their load, meaning the load is pulled intermittently in short bursts. 

This is not suitable for carrying injured workers for those reasons discussed above: the repetitive start-and-stop of the line poses a greater risk of further injury compared to the motion of a line which moves smoothly and continuously.

In short, the defining difference between a winch and a hoist is that a winch pulls horizontally and a hoist lifts vertically. There are winches which pull intermittently, but those are not recommended for the rescue of personnel.

Which brings us to an even more important question: if the difference between a hoist and winch is that narrow, is that difference important? We believe it is.

Why the Difference Between Winch and Hoist Matters

While terminology in the fall protection industry may be merging together, that process is not instantaneous. For some, hoist and winch may mean the exact same tool used the exact same way, but for others, that’s not yet the case.

Searches for “fall protection winch” will return results that resemble a hoist and results that resemble a more traditional winch. So, if you’re a buyer who may not know that there is a difference between the two, you find yourself in a pickle. 

Not knowing what category a product belongs to makes it impossible to be an informed buyer. If you’re not at least aware of the difference between winches and hoists, how much time will pass before you realize the product you’re evaluating may not be the best fit for you.

If you refer to a winch and a hoist and vice-versa, that’s fine. You’re not alone and it would be incredibly pedantic to correct people about that. Some day in the future, the terms will become total synonyms. 

For now though, at least you know the difference between winch and hoist. That knowledge can help you better compare, purchase, and use your hoist. 


  • Are all hoists designed to lift people?

    No. Products like our Personnel Hoist or Quick Rescue Hoist are purpose-built, tested, and rated specifically to lift the weight of person. Our Equipment Hoists are not and should never be attached to a person.

    Equipment loads behave differently when hanging from a line, they respond differently to conditions on the ground, and put different strains on the line.

  • Does Pelsue make anchorage systems for horizontal-entry confined spaces?

    We do not. There is absolutely a need for this equipment, but it is a very narrow segment of the market that also requires specialists to ensure worker safety and effectiveness. We specialize in vertical-entry confined space rescue equipment.

  • What are examples of horizontal-entry confined spaces?

    Pipelines and tankers are classic examples of horizontal-entry confined spaces. A sewer pipe may seem like a horizontal confined space, but since the space is accessed through a vertical opening, it is a vertical-entry confined space.

  • When looking at a product online, what key terms should I watch out for in the description to make sure I’m ordering the proper product?

    One of the most important things to look for is compatibility with your existing anchorage. If you have a vertical-entry anchorage like our LifeGuard, cross-referencing compatible hoists will ensure you get the right unit.
    Beyond that, ensure the crank arm is meant to be operated smoothly and look in the specifications for hints. These Hints can include terms like “vertical load limit.” 

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