Steel Wire Rope Failures Who Is Accountable?

In situations where human survival is at stake, acceptance of second best is a risk that nobody can afford to take. Wire ropes often quite literally provide a lifeline for industry in hostile and demanding conditions. Any person involved in the management of high tensile steel wire rope, can reasonably be held accountable if and when it fails. A good understanding of wire ropes, their design, characteristics and failure modes, is the basis for developing good maintenance strategies to ensure improved safety and reliability, therefore, if you are directly or indirectly responsible for maintenance, inspection, or the safe use of steel wire rope this article is a must to read.

David J. Vickress

David J. Vickress

Senior Associate of the

Reliability Institute and

Director Consultant of PT

Wire Rope Training and



In 1998, a crane load line broke while lifting the south topside module of the Petronius platform, dropping the module into the Gulf of Mexico. The cost was estimated to be around 116 million US dollars. Since 1999 more than 60 people have been killed as a result of wire ropes breaking and more than 65 associated injuries.

Not many people appreciate that there are literally thousands of wire rope designs, most of which can be put into a specific category. According to BS ISO 4309 2010 there are currently more than 25 categories of crane wire rope, each with differing characteristics and also different discard criteria. Deterioration can be measured, counted or calculated and the wire rope eventually taken out of service based on sophisticated discard criteria published in chosen standards, codes of practice or users handbooks.

Why Do Wire Ropes Fail and Who Can Be Held Accountable?

Unfortunately there is no simple answer to either of these questions. All wire ropes will eventually break due to corrosion, wear or fatigue even if they are maintained and used properly. Unpredictable wire rope failures will inevitably occur, quite often when you least expect it if the discard criteria is ignored, or those using the equipment are ignorant of it.

James Dawes of Topeka, Illinois, was killed in 2008 after being struck by the boom of a Link-Belt crane; the accident was caused by the boom hoist wire rope breaking. The crane rope had been inspected, but a report said that the inspector failed to reject the rope showing a high number of visible wire breaks. Premature or unexpected wire rope failures can also be attributed to poor manufacture, incorrect handling and storage, poor installation technique, poor selection or fitting of its termination, infrequent or inadequate inspection and poor maintenance. Of course there is always the possibility that mechanical damage can occur and this is usually attributed to human error.

It is necessary, particularly during offshore operations that frequent inspections are carried out over the whole length of the working part of all steel wire ropes. The frequency of inspections should be based on the severity of use and risk assessment and particular attention should be paid to the critical areas of the wire rope; areas that are frequently running over sheaves, compensating sheaves and the rope termination to name a few.

Figure 1

Figure 1. An offshore lift taking place; this one was successful but the ill-fated south topside module of the Petronius platform remains at the bottom of the Mexican Gulf.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Progression of wire breaks.

Click Image to Enlarge

Figure 3. Wire rope deterioration types.

Known Wire Rope Deterioration

If a wire rope has not been subjected to an abnormal environmental condition such as excessive heat, chemical attack or any corrosive solution and it has not been the victim of any form of mechanical damage, then trained operatives and inspectors can reasonably predict the length of time the steel wire rope is likely to last. That prediction, of course, will be dependent on the knowledge and experience of those making it coupled with known facts about the rope, its current condition and the application it is running on. The Inspector should be aware of the previous rope’s history, capacities of loads and the reeving systems employed together with the frequency of use etc.

Standards and Codes of Practice

Various standards and codes of practice have been written by recognized bodies and institutes based on the experience of experts or representatives of corporate organizations who have a vested interest. These standards do offer guidance on when a wire rope should be removed from service based on wear, abrasion and fatigue amongst others things, but none of these standards have any legal status except when they are called up by contract. Indeed they can all be supported or overturned in a court of law by an expert.

Users Handbook or Safe Use Instructions?

The users handbook, or more importantly the safe use instructions do have legal status. In many parts of the world these days, suppliers of cranes or any machinery for that matter, issue safe use instructions with new equipment. Modern applications employ modern wire rope and, in some cases, sheaves and pulleys that are made with materials other than steel. Original equipment manufacturers of such applications may impose discard criteria for the wire rope that is stricter than those in chosen standards. By law the user must follow manufacturers’ instructions.

Wire Rope Lubrication

Wire ropes will deteriorate much more quickly if they go dry and are allowed to remain in that condition. Tests have proven that a dry rope will lose up to 60 % of its expected life if it is not re-lubricated. There are differing schools of thought as to how wire rope should be lubricated. Some believe that a thin lubricant should be applied using a paintbrush. It is thought that this method allows the lubricant to penetrate. Experience has proven however, that thin penetrative lubricants will easily drain away or fly off in hot climates.

Another school of thought, and the one I stand on, is that grease should be pressure lubricated into the rope. This method, if applied properly, will ensure that the grease penetrates the rope pushing out the old lubricant with it and any possible corrosive agents such as salt water and sand. Any lubricant that is used must be compatible with the type that was applied previously and it is a good idea to consider the environment as well.

The Warning Signals

In any event, wire ropes usually announce that they are about to break. A series of individual wire breaks can be heard. These are likely to go on over several seconds and continuing for up to ten minutes before ultimate failure. Therefore, if operatives understand the warning signals, expensive incidents could be avoided.

Figure 2 shows two pieces of the same rope, the bottom portion quite clearly shows a progression of wire breaks. The operator was able to put the load down before disaster struck. The root cause of this fault was core deterioration brought about by internal corrosion.


To answer the other question on accountability, the list is extensive. Usually the first suspect is the wire rope manufacturer and that may be where the problem lies, but very often that is not the case. What if you were supplied the wrong rope for the application? Maybe you ordered the wrong rope or your buyer bought it from a cheap unapproved manufacturing source.

Perhaps your supplier is responsible, maybe he provided you with a rope that was produced to the wrong specifications. Would you know the difference? Perhaps you were sold a rope that had been stored in the suppliers or manufactures stock for a number of years and, whilst it was there, it hadn’t been properly maintained. Maybe the rope had been badly handled or installed incorrectly. The list of possibilities is endless.

In 1999 a ropeway in the French Alps snapped causing 21 deaths. In 2003, a ropeway wire rope snapped and 7 people died and a further 42 were injured. In 2007 a crane wire rope snapped at New Delhi’s metro, the entire structure tumbled down crushing workers underneath, six people were killed and 13 more were injured. In 2009 26 people were killed and 5 people were injured when a rope failed in a mine and a further 6 people were injured when a lift rope broke inside London’s Tower Bridge.

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation after the unthinkable premature failure of a wire rope, then you might like to know that there are independent analytical services capable of determining probable cause. One of these is Doncaster Analytical Services Ltd (DAS), they have an independent metallurgical laboratory providing factual analysis and testing of wire rope for any reason (contact Mr Shui Lee, Technical Director, Tel +44(0)1302 556063, email: shui.lee@doncasteranalyticalservices. com).


Operational safety depends not only on your equipment, but also on the awareness, skill and performance of the people who manage and use it. It is often difficult to quantify the cost benefits of training the right people but very easy to count the cost of a disaster.

You do not need a wire rope to fail in order to learn. Careful analysis of discarded ropes can also give you valuable information about your application, the way it operates, and the rope you have been using.

Based on this information, a trained, skilled and experienced inspector will be able to advise on a better crane or wire rope design, or to an improvement in maintenance procedures and safety.

»»Further information

HSE | 7.10.2013

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