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Construction Safety

Safer Alternatives to Killer Pulleys

TJ Lyons | June 28, 2024

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A wheel and rope pulley hangs from a high rise on a city construction site

A worker was lifting a bundle of shingles to a roof edge using something like the clothesline pulley on our farm. As the worker stepped back to haul on the rope and watch the bundle rise overhead, he tripped on some debris, let go of the rope, and was struck by the free-falling load. Not only was his shoulder broken, but he was blamed for standing underneath the load.

Why do we still use these dangerous devices to raise supplies? The answer is simply because we always have. Tradition is so hard to get past, just like our continued use of stilts and wooden ladders. This article takes a hard look at conventional pulleys, their drawbacks, and other safer alternatives.

Figure 2: Typical Setup—Free-Wheeling Pulley

Free-wheeling pulleys are known as "gin wheels or "well wheels." (Yes, well wheels.) Per Wikipedia, "The earliest evidence of pulleys date back to Ancient Egypt in the Twelfth Dynasty (1991–1802 BCE)." These water well pulleys were likely introduced in the United States by the Pilgrims using a bucket on a rope to draw water from hand-dug wells and are proudly still used today.

When working overseas, I had seen a pulley (below) that when you let go of the rope, it held the load. So, I called over to the United Kingdom and was redirected to a local US supplier of the device, called the Securpulley. They sent one for me to test out, and the field guys loved it.

I forwarded a photo of this clever device to our safety leaders, which was a huge opportunity to learn from that lesson and put these devices on all of our projects. But I forgot one of the constants in construction safety: Unless someone is killed, improving your safety system is rare. My photo showed the site superintendent standing in his office proudly holding this life-saving pulley he tested out. The corporate response was, "In the future, before you go sharing these kinds of photos, can you make sure that Tony is wearing his gloves." Absolutely no discussion on the pulley followed. The corporate focus remained on the appearance of safety and not on prevention.

I then wondered how often loads being raised by these free-wheeling clothesline pulleys hurt or killed good people. A local search tallied up scores of those dead and injured and attorneys who were defending those workers. In fact, here in New York City, a personal injury award of $15 million was determined for a worker involved in a clothesline pulley accident.

A tip: when attorneys list "pulleys" as the source of a potential injury claim on their websites, then it's time to pay attention.

After some research and feedback from the site team that trialed the original Securpulley, I understood that this type of pulley, where it grips the rope, can wear the rope. Never a fan of anything that fails over time or requires constant scrutiny, I called back to the United Kingdom and spoke with the representative of the manufacturer, Leach's. They shared that they had developed a next generation pulley that doesn't need to grip the rope. In this version, if the rope is let go as the load is suspended, the pulley slowly lowers the load to the ground. Consider a load that is 20 feet in the air—if it drops using a conventional free-wheeling pulley, it will hit the ground or the poor person holding the rope in 1.1 seconds. It just took you 1.4 seconds to read this line.

I then promised the vendor I would get these introduced across the United States and expected millions in return. We came to an agreement (not to the millions though), and they sent the "Bigben" shown below. This design has rope outside of the pulley, so there is little contact on the rope. So clever.

Bigben, photo courtesy of Leach's

My next step was to determine how common free-wheeling pulleys are in New York City, so I jumped on a train, arrived around 7 a.m., grabbed some street meat for breakfast, and by 10 a.m., had seen dozens of these pulley systems by just walking the streets of Manhattan.

The first example was a pulley installed on the 20th floor. Incredible. What reasonable person would think this was a good idea? Why does no one in safety enforcement recognize the risk? This practice has to stop, and I hope this article highlighting the danger is a first step.

How much can you lift with these pulleys? The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and BrandSafway offer an answer of a maximum load of 100 lbs. (45.3 kg.) for these free-wheeling pulleys. On two projects I viewed on my stroll, the load was heavy enough that it took two workers to lift it (scaffold parts) to the destination, and one additional worker was needed to swing the load in. This is even more deadly and inefficient because the railings were removed to allow the load to the deck.

Figure 3: Two-Person Lift to Scaffold

In the lifts I observed, they all went up over sidewalk sheds. In the United States, after careful planning, training, and permits, we still expect things to fall. So, rather than focusing on ways to prevent hurting people in the first place, we focus on ways to protect them.

Figure 4: Typical Sidewalk Sheds—NYC
Figure 5: Perfect Example of Hazards during a Lift

Watching one long lift, a section of scaffolding and its bag of parts continually struck the scaffold being built (one piece at a time) as it was hauled up. Imagine the inefficiency. Once the load had to be lowered to allow it to swing away from the building and the sidewalk protection to continue up. Check out the video I took of this process.

On the positive side, two sites I witnessed had internal motor driven pulleys that moved material up within the footprint of the scaffolding. I loved that.

Some pulleys were attached to the roofline/parapet, but most were attached to scaffolding. Below is the typical installation. Apparently plastic mesh has replaced railings for worker protection; otherwise, how would you swing the load in?

Figure 6: Rail Removed To Allow Load To Swing in
Figure 7: Conventional Installation

My next step to prove the obvious was to gather some local examples of pulley failures. I did not list the ones where the pulley itself fell, killing the person on the rope, except the following one.

Employee Is Killed When Struck on Head by Scaffold Pulley

Abstract: At 11:00 a.m. on July 13, 2023, an employee working on a plastering project for a construction company was filling buckets with concrete. The employee needed to take the buckets to the second floor of a building using a scaffold pulley system. The pulley system fell off and the top part hit the employee in the head. The employee died from blunt force trauma including a concussion and neck.…

Source: Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Accident Report Detail, Accident Summary Nr: 158110.015, Report ID: 0418800, Event Date: 07/13/2023.

Following are some examples of rope and pulley failures.

$15M Loss, Construction Accident—Construction Worker Paralyzed

At one point, the foreman directed that there was no need for all three Laborers to do this work and that one of them should go up on the roof to help tear up the old materials. With just two Laborers on the ground level, this process became extremely more dangerous than it already was. Now, instead of three men holding the rope, there were only two.

Shortly thereafter, an extremely heavy bucket was released from the roof. Only one Laborer was holding the rope on the ground level and the bucket was simply too heavy for him. The rope either slipped out of his hands or was intentionally released, causing this heavy bucket of construction debris to free-fall from the roof.

Tragically, our 26 year old client was directly under this free-falling bucket and the results were catastrophic. [Emphasis added.]

Source: "Verdicts and Settlements," Stavros E. Sitinas, LLC, accessed on June 24, 2024.

Immigrant Roofer Struck by a Bag of Gravel That Fell from a Roof

On November 13, 2010, a 39-year-old male roofer (victim) was part of a crew repairing the roof of a building. The victim was standing on the ground when he was struck by a bag loaded with gravel from the building's roof. The bag, which weighed approximately 40 pounds, was being lowered from the roof to the ground using a portable manual rope pulley system. The bag free fell three and one half stories, striking the victim in the head. [Emphasis added.]

Source: CDC, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Massachusetts Case Report: 10MA032, October 26, 2011.

Rope Jam Injures Worker

He was on the second floor setback operating the rope on a well wheel lowering scaffold framed. The rope jammed, he pulled on it and the wheel let go, it came down and hit him in the hard hat. The hat split open. The wheel then hit him in the back of the head. His name is Luis Ramon. The FDNY is transporting him. He did not lose consciousness, he has a deep wound in the back of his head. The FDNY took the damaged hard hat with them. [Emphasis added.]

Source: New York City Local Law 78 Injury/Fatality Incident Report June 2019, ID 1000000295, June 14, 2019.

Rope "Got Loose"

Yoah Abreu was raising a column with a winch. The rope on the winch got loose and his leg got caught in the rope. It pulled his left leg causing him to fall and the column fell as well. The column landed 8 feet from Yoah Abreu. [Emphasis added.]

Source: New York City Local Law 78 Injury/Fatality Incident Report August 2022, ID 1000002414, August 1, 2022.

Worker Suffers Fatal Head Injury When Hoisting Device on Scaffold Fails: $74K OSHA Fine

Inspectors determined that a scaffold pulley system the contractor was using at a residential construction site failed while workers were hoisting buckets of concrete. The failure led to the hoist arm of the pulley system detaching from the scaffold and striking a worker in the head, resulting in a fatal injury.

Source: Merriell Moyer, "Worker Suffers Fatal Head Injury When Hoisting Device on Scaffold Fails: $74K OSHA Fine," Safety News Alert, February 1, 2024.

Material Fell from Scaffolding, Injury to Worker

A DOB inspector reported that a worker was dismantling scaffolding from a building and was using a rope and pulley to lower the scaffolding elements when the rope got stuck. When the worker tried to release the rope, the pulley came loose, fell, and hit the worker on his hard hat, causing a cut to his head and shoulder. The worker was taken to a hospital by an FDNY ambulance in a conscious state. The worker was expected to receive stitches and be released from the hospital later on during the day.

Four ECB Violations were issued: one violation for the failure to institute safety measures, one violation for the presence of inadequate logs, one violation for the failure to have a competent person on the site, as per code, and one violation for the failure of the Construction Superintendent to perform their duties. [Emphasis added.]

Source: Monthly Accident Details: January–September 2019, New York City, Date of Incident June 14, 2019, p. 35.

What Is the Answer?

The conventional rope and free-wheeling pulley approach should be prohibited: It's archaic, and we know it kills workers. The following are my thoughts on possible solutions.

  • If the building has a freight elevator, that should be the first avenue for getting materials near the roof or for exterior work. How to access the exterior when all the apartments are occupied will require some planning.
  • Install a temporary construction hoist for workers to access and load a building, roof, or scaffold.
    • Insurers could provide relief in project insurance when a hoist is used rather than manual material handling. Everyone's risk is reduced when you cannot drop things on cars, streets, or someone's head.
    • A construction hoist would increase the speed of getting materials into a building and increase the loads per lift. That's efficiency.
    • A temporary construction hoist installed to deliver materials to the floor where they're needed will make the work more efficient.
  • Due to the constraints of building access in urban areas, an internally, motorized pulley nested within the scaffold offers less risk. Make that a contract and local code requirement. One would still need to ensure that the worker below does not stand and watch the load as it goes up or the rigging as it descends. Death by gravity is a constant.
  • If a pulley must be used, it should have a brake that holds or controls the load. The Army Corps of Engineers requires a mechanism to hold such loads with "self-locking dogs." An engineered pulley with braking would hold or slowly lower the line if the handlers lost it, allowing them to move away or regain control.
  • In many cases I reviewed, the rope stuck in the conventional pulley, and when the worker pulled the rope to free it, the entire pulley and/or the supports came down. The pulley I tested would not wear the line out nor would there be a place for the rope to jam.
  • A larger pulley diameter will reduce the strain and stress to those doing the lifting. The one I tested was 50 percent greater than the rest of the field, so it's easier to haul on that line.
  • "What's in this for me?" Elimination of free-wheeling pulleys would provide contractors and owners with US Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design points. 1


One of our biggest barriers in construction safety is our inability to change—unless someone is killed. Even then a fatality does not always drive a firm to make the right decision because we constantly blame the worker and not the position we put them in.

When I first offered the idea of "Ladders Last" to rid the workplace of these archaic devices, my boss replied, "Well TJ, what about the people who make ladders?" I noted we also used to make ashtrays, asbestos insulation, and lead paint. I would love to add well wheel pulleys to that list.

If you rely on a free-wheeling pulley to move loads, let's move toward something safer. Incorporate prevention as you design the work. Should you continue to use a free-wheeling pulley instead of a safer method—like a motor or a pulley with a brake when a load is suspended—and someone is hurt or killed, expect a call from the field … then a call from an attorney. Enough.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.


1 Christine Branche, Heather Langford, and Matthew E. Gillen, "Opportunities for Integrating Safety and Health into Sustainable Building Projects: Have You Tried the Prevention through Design (PtD) Pilot Credit?," NIOSH Science Blog, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 31, 2017.