Aerial lift operation was once a fairly straightforward topic limited to a discussion of the various types of bucket trucks available and their safe/efficient use, but that has changed immensely in the past decade or so. Aerial lifts are now available in a wide variety of configurations and power packages, ranging from the traditional truck-mounted lift, center or rear mounted, all the way to self-propelled units with four-wheel drive or even leveling spider-like appendages.

Truck-mounted lifts lead company owners to decisions about chip boxes and forestry packages, while self-propelled lifts lead to job site transportation questions. There are lifts available that are tow-behind trailer units, or ones that shrink and expand to get into limited access areas.

Power options have also expanded to include lifts that are all electric, limiting at least one source of noise on busy job sites. Working height options have also increased, meaning companies that work primarily with smaller trees need not have too much boom, while others approach heights that even give experienced operators pause. All of these available options give tree companies and their employees more flexibility in choosing which aerial lift package is best for their needs, whether it be for purchase or rental, but also present many more options to use the lift improperly or unsafely.

For many years, it has been fairly common amongst tree folk to think “anyone” can operate a bucket or lift; and though that may be true depending on what is meant by “run,” the reality is that an aerial lift, regardless of size, configuration or power source, is an expensive, complicated piece of equipment. Such a significant investment should not be put into the hands of Johnny Bag O’Doughnuts without at least a little bit of training and education, particularly if Johnny is expected to run it safely and effectively. On-the-job training can be expensive, particularly when a big piece of powered equipment worth many thousands of dollars is involved. Luckily, a few basic principles and practices will go a long way toward making sure any aerial lift is used efficiently and safely.

Aerial lifts allow operators to put themselves in a safe, stable position to make chain saw cuts aloft. Photo: Michael Tain

Maintenance

Every lift will have varying daily, weekly and monthly maintenance needs, typically stated clearly in the manufacturer’s literature, but a basic safety/function check should always take place before the lift is used on the work site or in the yard. The check will also probably differ depending on the model and setup, for example a self-propelled lift will require different checks than a truck-mounted one, but as a minimum the lift should be checked for missing/loose nuts and bolts; cracks, pits or holes in metal or fiberglass components; and hydraulic hose wear or leaks.

After this inspection, run through all functions from the ground or lower controls. This allows the crew to make sure the lift is capable of doing what they need it to do without having anyone aloft and at risk. Layers of grease, sawdust, dirt, etc. accumulating on the boom, in the bucket or on/in other parts of the lift can affect its safe use, so regular washing and cleaning with the appropriate cleaning products and tools should be part of the regular maintenance. This will keep the lift operating safely by preventing an avenue for electricity to accumulate, and help its effectiveness by keeping debris out of the many moving parts.

An illustration of some points on an aerial lift that may need to be checked and maintained regularly. Photo: Melissa LeVangie

Operation

Since the use of aerial lifts began in the tree industry, lift operators and climbers have had disagreements about which skill or equipment is better, more useful and more challenging. This article is unlikely to settle that disagreement.

In truth, different trees require different skills and equipment. Sometimes a single tree can be done most safely and efficiently with a combination of both an aerial lift and climbing. A tree care professional that truly wishes to be a professional and prepared for all eventualities should recognize this and have skills in both climbing and working with aerial lifts. A word of caution however, just as a climber should not focus all their attention on the more easily reached inner canopy, effectively “lion tailing” limbs, a lift operator should avoid the temptation to make “convenience cuts” just to allow movement of the bucket/cage into a blocked area of the canopy.

Work site security

This topic does not have to do with making sure Johnny doesn’t scam a sandwich from someone else’s lunch bag, rather it has to do with securing the work site around the aerial lift from possible targets – human and vehicular.

Almost all lifts create more noise in an already noisy work space, thus knowing what’s going on in it, and controlling access in and out, becomes vitally important. Any slightly experienced tree crew member can relate horror stories about pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles and even horseback riders obliviously wandering into the drop zone right at the moment large, woody debris is about to descend.

Using an aerial lift to monitor students at their level in a field training session. Note operator’s use of full-body harness and deceleration lanyard. Photo: Tim Bushnell

Roadside operations, which are commonly carried out with aerial lifts, require another layer of work site precautions. Federal/state DOT regulations should be followed in regard to signage, flaggers, high-visibility apparel, cones, etc. The noisiness of aerial lift work sites means pedestrian approaches often go unnoticed, so flagging, perimeters and even spotters with firm but polite attitudes may be required. In addition, noise levels will require that an effective communication system between the ground crew and the operator be in place. Options such as whistles, radios or hand/arm signals are all acceptable as long as all crew members are familiar with their meaning and use.

Location and setup

Setup choice and location are key to safe aerial lift use, and can influence how quickly or slowly a job is completed. The lift will only be as stable and dependable as the ground it is set up on, so recently dug areas or obviously soft ground should be looked at suspiciously and closely.

All required outriggers should be extended as fully as needed and placed on secure positions. Pads, cribbing or other methods will often be needed to ensure stable outrigger placement. A lift’s boom extension will create a great deal of pressure on the outriggers, so skimping on pads or cribbing is nothing more than a recipe for disaster. In addition, tires should be properly chocked with something more substantial than a chunk of wood or a hard hat.

The bottom line can be seriously affected when a lift has to be moved continually throughout the job. As much as is possible, the lift should be positioned to carry out the maximum amount of work with a minimal amount of repositioning.

PPE

Basic personal protective equipment for aerial lift use remains the same as climbing operations: hearing, eye and head protection. The operator is required by federal standard to wear a body belt and fall-restraint lanyard, though some states require more, so check local and state standards.

A full-body harness and decelerating fall-arrest lanyard are much safer and will provide a gentler stop should an operator fall from the lift. The use of a longer, non-fall restraint lanyard with a body belt negates the whole purpose and allows the operator to get into a position where they can fall, so operators should ensure they are matching up their pieces of equipment properly.

In addition to making for a gentler stop, the deceleration lanyard/full-body harness combination will allow for more options in regaining the bucket or descending to the ground than the body belt/fall-restraint lanyard combination. No matter what system is used, a lanyard hooked back to the operator instead of the lift is doing no good at all and leaves the operator open to discover the law of gravity in a very personal manner.

Utilities and electricity

The dielectric capabilities of some lifts can lead to operators being a bit casual around energized conductors or utilitwwies. This is an error that can have disastrous consequences. Minimum approach distances must be followed by all arborists. 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 need to be inspected regularly as part of a maintenance plan, typically by the manufacturer or their representative, to ensure that they are still functioning correctly. These capabilities should not be considered “fail safe.” 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.

Pushing an already cut and rigged piece off from the bucket, which allows easy movement to better spots on the piece for leverage and safety. Photo: Tim Bushnell

Work plan

As discussed in the section on setup, the location of the lift on the work site can positively or negatively affect efficiency. It can be challenging to find an efficient location when using a truck with a forestry package, one where the chips are blown into the back of the truck the lift is mounted on. The truck should be set up in the best place to use the lift, not the chipper. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the job may get done more quickly if all the chipping is done at once after all the debris is on the ground, rather than having both lift and chipper in partially effective spots for the duration of the job.

Bouncing large, woody debris off what is keeping one aloft is always a bad idea, and aerial lifts are no exception. If necessary, rigging systems should be used to avoid or minimize impacts on the lift and its structure. Even minor impacts will, over time, take a toll on the structure of the lift and could lead to catastrophic failures.

Rescue, evacuation, extrication

An earlier column 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 be trained in the proper actions to take in the event of an injured or incapacitated operator. In addition, systems that allow the operator to evacuate or regain the bucket should be present, and the operator trained in their use.

Lifts, in all their current variations, are another useful and constantly developing tool in the tree care professional’s toolbox. One that can take up a lot of space, require some specialized care and maintenance and add yet more noise to the work site, but in the end a tool that when used properly can lead to safely performed, efficiently completed tree work. The basic principles and practices discussed here should help Johnny better understand and use this valuable tool, regardless of its make, model or configuration.