While there are a great many companies using bucket trucks or other forms of aerial lifts in their day-to-day tree care operations, many of these same companies and crews have not necessarily thought through the actions required should the lift or operator become incapacitated or otherwise require rescue, evacuation or extrication. Needless to say, at least at this point in time, aerial lift operation and rescue are not a part of many competitions. While the emphasis on rope and harness or spur rescues is certainly important, companies/crews that use lifts regularly should learn and train in the subject of aerial lift rescue.

Many members of the tree care industry may think an aerial lift rescue is a simple process, but once experienced or examined the complexities that can be involved quickly become evident. The emphasis placed on this type of rescue will certainly be based on the level of usage, but just as all tree care crews should be familiar with the basics of rope and harness or spur rescues, aerial lift rescue is a topic that all crews should be somewhat familiar with. The reality is that a crew can never tell when they may be confronted with an aerial lift operator in need of help, be they working for a utility company, such as phone or cable; a tree company competitor working nearby; or even the well-meaning but poorly prepared civilian homeowner with a rental unit, as personal experience has shown.

Getting out, or getting them out

This type of rescue can be broken down into two types: evacuation or self-rescue and extrication. While this column is intended to be primarily about aerial lift evacuation, the two capabilities are part and parcel of a complete aerial lift rescue preparedness program. Evacuation is when the operator is unhurt or mildly injured, but the lift is not functioning, leaving the operator to get back to ground level safely without the use of the lift. Rescue/extrication operations occur when an operator is unconscious or otherwise unable to operate the lift, and fellow crew members must return the operator to ground level and extricate him from the bucket for medical treatment.

Don’t be a stupid victim

Operators who do not use the appropriate safety equipment, such as five-point/full-body harnesses and accompanying fall-arrest lanyards, will not need evacuation or extrication, as they will be moving at a fairly good clip when they impact the ground, although advanced first aid skills will most likely be required. Fall-prevention/restraint or fall-arrest systems are not only required by the applicable standards while operating an aerial lift, but also will help prevent the lift operator from becoming intimately familiar with how quickly the human body can descend through thin air, along with how suddenly it can stop upon reaching the ground.

While simple body belts and short fall prevention lanyards certainly meet the standards in some states, they also make aerial lift evacuation very difficult and lead to high pain levels if not serious injuries in the event of being thrown from the lift. The additional protection and support of a full-body harness and fall-arrest system is money well invested.

A little help here

The simplest and best choice in the event of an injured aerial lift operator aloft is for the crew on the ground to operate the lower controls to bring him down quickly and safely. This option obviously requires several components, including functioning lower controls; the entire crew having knowledge of their location and operation; and the ability to recognize when an additional hazard exists, such as an energized truck. After all, a would-be rescuer’s first responsibility is to avoid becoming a second victim.

The high-pressure environment when an injured or unconscious operator is up in the air is not the time to be figuring out which lever does what. In the event of an energized truck, there are certainly ways to run the controls from a safe distance or reach the truck while avoiding the energized zone, but, once again, figuring these things out in the actual moment is going to take precious time away from the actual rescue.

Evacuation, no, not that kind

There are a number of scenarios that can result in an aerial lift operator needing to carry out a self-rescue or evacuation, but in general the operator is unhurt or mildly injured and the lift is disabled. The situation could be created by a hydraulic or electric failure in the lift, an engine fire in the truck that prevents normal use and descent, or even an operator thrown out of the bucket dangling from his harness and unable to regain the controls with nonfunctioning or nonexistent lower controls.

Many different systems are available for these situations, even ones that allow the operator to get back in the bucket after being ejected, but none of them will work if they are not present, connected properly, and the operator is familiar with their use and operation. The majority of the systems are “all parts included,” meaning they typically include some form of descent device and their own rope, most often a lighter, smaller-diameter line meeting the strength requirements.

Operators should examine the method in which they are going to anchor this escape line prior to an actual emergency, not only for safety and security, but also to avoid chafing and rubbing against sharp edges of the lift. They also need to make sure their chosen anchoring system doesn’t put them in body positions that require advanced training in yoga to exit the lift. An evacuation system can certainly be simply a climbing system in the bucket, though it will take up much more space than one of the manufactured systems. Users should make sure it works with the harness they wear in the lift and that appropriate anchors are available.

Hanging hurts

Hanging in a five-point/full-body harness from the dorsal attachment point, though slightly more pleasant than hanging with a body belt up around the chest, not only doesn’t feel that great, but it can also be physically dangerous. On occasion, a medical condition called suspension trauma, where blood gathers and pools in areas where full circulation is restricted by the harness, can develop. There are belt pouches available that can hang from the operator’s harness and contain foot straps that allow them to “step up” while hanging to relieve some of this dangerous pressure and lessen the likelihood of suspension trauma.

Getting loose

If ejected, the operator will be hanging from the fall-arrest lanyard, assuming one is being used, otherwise they’ll already be on the ground. While hanging from the lanyard is much better than the alternative, it still presents some significant challenges. Some form of system must be present to allow the suspended operator to get his weight off the lanyard and regain the lift or descend to the ground.

Once again, this system not only has to be present, but the user should have an understanding of its intended purpose along with regular training in its use – learning while hanging from the lanyard is problematic for most folks.

Getting them out

Removing a severely injured or unconscious arborist from the bucket or cage of an aerial lift can be both physically and mentally challenging for an unprepared and untrained ground crew. This operation is typically called extrication, and there are various systems of assistance available to make it easier.

A number of lifts have built-in systems, either manual or powered, that allow the bucket to be turned from the vertical to the horizontal, allowing the victim to be easily accessed and slid out for medical treatment. These systems will vary in operation on machines from different manufacturers and must be examined and practiced with in calmer times to ensure safe, effective use when it counts.

For tree care companies with buckets that do not pivot or swivel, there are a large number of mechanical advantage systems available that can be used to lift the victim up vertically out of the bucket. All of these systems require some foresight and training as to anchor points, operation and installation.

OK, what now?

Once the injured/unconscious lift operator has been safely returned to ground level and extricated from the bucket, his care and treatment becomes a priority. Crews that had the foresight to establish and practice emergency response plans will no doubt already have emergency medical services on the way to the work site, along with the required first aid equipment and training to care for the lift operator prior to the arrival of the medics. Those crews who have not established a plan will once again be trying to learn on the fly, when the costs are measured in much more than dollars and cents.

Aerial lift evacuation, along with its cousin extrication, are skills that require education and training, as do all the facets of tree care. However, some basic knowledge and practice, readily available through training organizations, professional associations, or in-house designed processes, will assure that in the event of a problem with a lift or an operator aloft the crew will react quickly and safely for the best possible outcome.