Not all that long ago in the shrouded past of the tree care profession, a discussion of the use and misuse of aerial lifts would have been simply a discussion of bucket trucks: large, heavy, economically challenging units that, while many tree companies aspired to own, few could afford or justify. Those days are long behind the industry now, and the variety of aerial lifts available to tree care crews are only exceeded by the number of options, boom lengths and creative rental/financing possibilities available.

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There are truck-mounted, tow-behind and self-propelled units powered by electricity, gas and diesel with boom lengths ranging from a pedestrian 25 feet to close enough to 200 feet to make you wonder what you’re doing up there; and though this wide selection of choices helps make sure that tree care personnel at least have the opportunity to have the “right tool for the right job,” the old adage of the tool being only as good as the operator using it is particularly true with aerial lifts.

Aerial lift push

An operator in an aerial lift preparing to push off and free fall the already cut and severed piece of wood.
Photo: Michael (House) Tain

Unfortunately, there is often a misconception that an aerial lift can be operated well with minimal familiarization and training. It can certainly be operated, but whether it will be done fully and well without some basic knowledge and practice is certainly up for debate. In addition, the logic of spending tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars on a piece of equipment and then throwing Johnny B. O’Donuts into the operator’s role with minimal information and training is suspect at best, if not abusive of the company’s funds. However, with a basic understanding of the principles and recommendations for aerial lift operations, all of the wide variety of aerial lifts can be operated safely and efficiently, helping tree care crews better care for the urban forest.

To use or not to use, that is the question: There has been many a spirited discussion between climbers and aerial lift operators, particularly late at night in establishments with dim lighting, as to the usefulness and applicability of both their individual particular skills and chosen equipment. The reality is that both climbing and aerial lift operation are skills — no more, no less; and while some trees may be most efficiently cared for by climbing, others may best be done by using an aerial lift, while yet others may require a combination of both. Tree care professionals who blind themselves to other possibilities do the trees and themselves no favors. However, aerial lift operators must avoid the temptation to make “convenience cuts,” those cuts that are unnecessary for the health of the tree, but allow the lift better access to other parts of the tree, much as climbers fight down the urge to remove a whole limb rather than walk out to the lateral that needs pruning or removal.

Aerial lift in tight spaces

An aerial lift being used in close quarters with a crane on a tree removal job.
Photo: Scott Prophett

Work site security: Aerial lift operations will require even greater vigilance than climbing operations in keeping the work site secure and pedestrian/bystander/target free. Communication, as in all tree care operations, is paramount, particularly when the engine, dependant on the aerial lift being employed, is running, making ground personnel to operator verbal communication difficult if not impossible. In a noisy environment, other options such as whistles, hand/arm signals or radios should be employed. In addition, many aerial lift operations may be roadside, meaning the appropriate federal and state DOT guidelines must be followed regarding cones, signage, flagging personnel and high-visibility apparel.

Maintenance: Daily, weekly and monthly maintenance requirements will vary with the individual model and type of aerial lift used, however a basic function and safety check must be carried out prior to an operator taking the lift aloft. Once again, individual manufacturers will provide guidance on their particular model’s function check system, but at a minimum the operator should examine the boom, basket and structure for security of attachments (bolts, nuts, etc.), integrity of materials (cracked fiberglass, pits, holes, etc.), and move the lift through its paces from the lower operation position.

Setup: An aerial lift’s stability when being operated aloft is only as good as its initial setup and the ground beneath it. All the required outriggers must be properly extended and seated firmly and securely on a hard, durable surface. In many cases this will require the use of pads, cribbing or other materials to give the outriggers the necessary surface to provide support. Incredible amounts of force will be exerted on the relatively small footprint of the outrigger when the lift is aloft and maneuvering, thus soft, wet ground, recently excavated/filled areas and voids, such as old septic tanks, should all be viewed with suspicion and concern; and steps taken to mitigate/eliminate them as much as is possible. Tires on truck or trailer-mounted lifts should be securely and properly chocked as required by the lift’s manufacturer; and should be chocked with a true wheel chock, not that quarter round of hickory left over from the firewood pile.

packaged aerial lift

A prepackaged aerial lift evacuation system manufactured by Buckingham Manufacturing.
Photo: Michael (House) Tain

Operator safety/PPE: Basic PPE for the crew and operator during aerial lift operations differs in no way from climbing operations; and head, eye and hearing protection, when required, must be worn at all times. Although the federal standards only require a body belt and fall restraint lanyard, individual states and provinces may, and do, exceed this, so operators should check requirements in their geographic area. A body belt is simply a wide leather, webbing or pleather belt that goes around the operator’s waist and, in conjunction with a fall-restraint lanyard — a short length of webbing or cordage approximately 2 feet long with snap hooks on both ends — prevents the operator from getting into a position from which they might fall from the bucket or basket.

This system is often misused by the addition of an inappropriate longer lanyard, which allows the operator to get into a position to fall, often with tragic results. It is highly recommended that operators exceed the federal standard and wear a full-body fall arrest harness with a dorsal attachment point and a longer deceleration lanyard. The full-body harness will better distribute the forces the operator’s body is exposed to during a fall, and the “tear-away” nature of the deceleration lanyard will gradually lessen the forces the operator’s body is exposed to upon reaching the end of the lanyard. Whether a fall restraint/body belt system or a fall arrest/full-body harness system is used, neither will do the operator any good if the snap hook is neatly clipped back to the belt or harness instead of attached to the aerial lift. Additionally, for those jobs that require a mixture of climbing and aerial lift work, there are full-body harnesses available that also function fully as climbing harnesses, allowing the operator to seamlessly switch over from one operation to the other with a minimum of downtime and equipment changeover.

Electricity: Aerial lifts are often used in line clearance and operations near energized conductors, and sometimes are thought to be much safer than they are in this application. Personnel working within the minimum approach distances for arborists near energized conductors must be line clearance arborists or line clearance arborist trainees with the appropriate electrical hazard awareness training. Operators should be familiar with the dielectric, or lack thereof, capabilities of the lift they are using and employ it appropriately. Lifts that are insulated will need to be inspected regularly and rigorously to ensure that their dielectric capabilities are still intact and functioning. Operators should never rely upon the insulated nature of a lift, and care should always be taken to avoid contact with energized conductors. Additionally, the buildup of dirt, grease and other materials on a lift’s boom or surfaces can provide a conductor for electricity to travel through, so regular cleaning with appropriate products should be part of the lift’s regular maintenance program.

Swivel bucket on aerial lift

A swivel bucket on an aerial lift for ease of removing an unconscious operator.
Photo: John Ransom

Work practices: The lift should always be set up in the safest and most efficient location for performing the work on the given tree. This will often pre-sent challenges, particularly in areas with limited space/access, or when using lifts on trucks with a forestry package, where the chips are blown into the back of the same truck the lift is mounted on. Often, as counterintuitive as it might seem, the job will get done more quickly and efficiently with the lift in the proper place, then chipping done afterwards, rather than trying to “make do” with neither lift or chipper in quite the right spot. Care should be taken when removing large wood or branches to examine the drop zone for possible impacts on the boom or lift structure and establish rigging systems if necessary.

Evacuation and extrication: Aerial lift operators and their crews must have the systems, training and knowledge to deal with any emergency that might arise while using the lift. Evacuation refers to a system that an operator can use to descend from or evacuate from a disabled lift while aloft, while extrication systems are those used by the rest of the crew to remove an unconscious or seriously injured climber from the bucket, or basket, of the lift.

Although this is necessarily just a simple introduction to the principles and possibilities of aerial lift use and operation, the concepts and concerns discussed here do provide a basic outline and checklist for the employment of this valuable piece of equipment. The ability to use and operate efficiently one of the variety of aerial lifts now available is a valuable skill for any tree care professional to have; and one that only adds to their personal mental toolbox and skill set, to disparage it as a skill or think it beneath oneself says more about an individual’s poor attitude than it does about anything else.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in Tree Services in October 2010.