The days when discussions of aerial lifts were limited to bucket trucks are gone. A current search or evaluation of aerial lift devices will reveal an almost dizzying array of packages, capabilities, options and even power sources. While truck-mounted lifts are still available and an excellent choice for many tree care companies, the variety of aerial devices available, along with the wide variety of prices, has made some type of aerial lift a much more feasible and affordable option for almost every interested tree care company.

Traditional bucket truck-type lifts require that companies consider how they want the truck configured — just to transport the lift, or with some form of chip storage ability added. Tow-behind or self-propelled stand-alone lifts lead to their own transportation concerns. Along with these choices come decisions regarding boom length and height, as well as power options. Instead of being overwhelmed by all these choices, the tree industry should rejoice that there are finally options that fit all work sites and budgets.

Regardless of which aerial lift option or package a company elects to purchase, it will be a substantial investment. The common thought process that any new tree crew member can run an aerial lift is a good way to substantially increase that investment through repairs, maintenance or, sadly, medical costs. Fortunately, a few basic principles and concepts can provide a framework of useful rules for these useful tools.

Care and feeding

Every type of lift, regardless of power source, package or transport, will require daily, weekly and monthly maintenance. These requirements will be clearly stated in that well-known, yet often ignored, piece of literature known as the manufacturer’s guidebook, or owner’s manual. While it may be difficult for the average tree crew member to believe, manufacturers do not spend all that time, money and energy producing these manuals simply to provide a thick coaster for coffee cups, they are full of useful, important and possibly lifesaving information.

If nothing else, a simple safety and function check should always take place prior to aerial lift operation. This check will vary depending on the type and capabilities of the lift, but should include an inspection for loose pieces/parts, cracked or leaking hoses, and wear on metal/fiberglass components. The device should also be put through its “paces” with no one in the bucket or on the platform to ensure that it’s functioning correctly.

Though it may be difficult to believe from the appearance of many tree care industry lifts, cleanliness does have an impact on the performance and safety of aerial lifts, particularly in regard to electrical conductivity, so regular cleaning with the appropriate products is an excellent idea.

Liftin’ you up

Aerial lifts are not going to be the best option for every tree or job, but neither is climbing; and many jobs may require a combination of both. Rather than settling into an antagonistic stance toward one skill or the other — and both are definitely skills — tree care professionals would be best served by remembering that a true profession requires multiple skills, and being adept at multiple skills is the sign of a true professional.

Aerial lift operation is certainly not as physically demanding as climbing, yet it requires a “fine” touch on the controls and an ability to think within the space of the tree’s canopy, the platform/bucket and the boom. A tree care professional should avoid the tendency to make cuts simply to gain access for the bucket or boom when operating a lift, as these “convenience cuts” certainly don’t fall under the heading of “tree care.”

Keeping ’em safe

Securing the worksite from foot and vehicle traffic is imperative when operating an aerial lift. Aerial lifts, in general, generate a fair amount of noise even without the addition of a chipper to the equation, thus controlling who and what are passing underneath is vital. This noise can be distracting to the civilian population, and can make communication amongst the crew difficult, so having a clear and concise method for communicating, such as radios, hand/arm signals or whistles, is extremely important in aerial lift operations. The common use of aerial lifts over sidewalks, roads and trails generates a different set of precautions, and crews should be familiar with the appropriate federal and state DOT requirements for cones, signs and high-visibility clothing.

Where and how to set up

The choices made on where and how to set up the aerial lift, regardless of type, are important for its safe and efficient operation. Climbers don’t often have to worry about soft ground beneath the tree they’re working in, or an old septic tank or newly filled trench, but an aerial lift operator can’t ignore such variables.

Aerial lifts have outriggers and counterweights for a reason, a very large “lever” is about to be extended high into the air, and that can cause the whole unit to flip over, thus the outriggers and other leveling measures should be used as intended. This may require the use of special pads or cribbing, but the extra time spent setting up the lift properly will be much cheaper than the alternative of a lift turned “turtle.”

Any tires that are part of an aerial lift should be chocked as required. A rolling or shifting lift with a rider aloft is much more serious and dangerous than a nightmare carnival ride.

Protect those pieces and parts

The personal protective equipment (PPE) for aerial lift use remains the same as climbing operations: hearing, eye and head protection. Under federal standards, at a minimum the operator of a lift is required to wear a body belt with the appropriate length fall-restraint lanyard, but many states/provinces/municipalities may require more. Full-body harnesses with decelerating fall-arrest lanyards are a better, and safer, option, providing a much more “survivable” stop at the end of a fall or “throw” from the lift. Longer lanyards, ones not intended for fall restraint, used with body belts put operators in a position where they can not only take a fall, but end up with a body belt under their armpits or disappearing off their feet, neither of which is a very comfortable option.

Whatever lanyard is used, it should be hooked to the appropriate anchor on the lift; hooking it back to the harness “John Wayne style” only looks cool until the operator is fitted for a cervical collar and backboard.

Electric, electric, electric

The dielectric capabilities of some lifts can lead to operators being a bit casual around energized conductors or utilities, and this can easily have disastrous consequences. Minimum approach distances must be followed by all arborists; and those working within them must be line clearance arborists or arborist trainees with the required knowledge and training of electrical hazards.

The insulated or dielectric capabilities of lifts must be inspected regularly as part of a maintenance plan, typically by the manufacturer or their representative, to ensure that they’re still functioning correctly. These capabilities should not be considered “fail safe,” and operators should follow minimum approach distances, as well as ground personnel avoiding contact with the truck or outriggers while the boom is near energized conductors.


Other columns have discussed this topic in more detail, but emergency preparedness plans are just as vital in aerial lift operations as they are in climbing operations. All crew members should be familiar with the lower controls of the aerial lift, and trained in the proper actions/responses to be made in the event of an injured or incapacitated operator. A bad situation will be even worse if the only person who knows how to run the lower controls is up in the bucket or platform and unresponsive.

Electric often rears its ugly head in aerial lift rescue situations, so crews should be familiar with techniques to operate the controls from a distance, or how to gain access to the controls while avoiding becoming a second victim.

Aerial lifts are available in so many different configurations and capabilities that most tree companies should easily be able to find one that fits their particular budget and work needs. However, as with all tools, those useful rules that govern basic safe and efficient operation are extremely important for a good return on investment, and the basic principles discussed here can provide a good start toward achieving that return.