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A fairly common school of thought in the tree care industry is that anyone can run an aerial lift. Although that may be true depending on what the definition of "run" is, a little knowledge and training will help new operators run this typically expensive piece of equipment safely and well.

Aerial Lift Safety and Use

By Michael “House” Tain


The topic of aerial lifts and their safe use has changed a great deal in the last couple of decades. Previously, the only aerial lift that was available, though not always that affordable, to tree care companies would have been a bucket truck. The biggest questions that would’ve had to been answered by a prospective buyer — beyond what brand of lift to get — were where they wanted the lift mounted on the truck, and whether or not they wanted a chip box/forestry package. Aerial lifts are available now in a wide variety of configurations, reach, capacity, and, most joyous of all, prices. Lifts are out there that are tow-behind, self-propelled or the traditional truck unit ranging in height from 25 feet to more than tree folk should be thinking about when sober; and power options include electricity, diesel, and gas. All this variety gives tree care personnel a lot more options and flexibility when using or needing an aerial lift, but it also means a lot more opportunities to use them unsafely or improperly. A fairly common school of thought in the tree care industry is that anyone can run an aerial lift. Although that may be true depending on what the definition of “run” is, a little knowledge and training will help new operators run this typically expensive piece of equipment safely and well.


Lift care and maintenance

Different models and makes of aerial lifts will have different daily, weekly and monthly maintenance requirements. But a basic function and safety check should always be carried out before the operator takes the lift up. This function system check will probably also vary with make and model. But the crew should, at a minimum, check the basic structure for the security of nuts and bolts; cracks, pits, or holes in fiberglass or metal; visible hose wear and integrity; and run the lift through its basic operations from the lower controls. Regular washing and cleaning of the lift, with the appropriate products, is also not a bad idea, both for maintenance and safety. The build-up of grease and scum on the boom and bucket can provide a conductor for electricity, negating the safety of the operator when working near utilities.



A piece — already rigged with the face notch in place — being removed by an aerial lift operator. Photo by Michael “House” TainLift use

There have always been, and likely always will be, disagreements between climbers and lift operators as to which skill and equipment is better or more useful. The reality is that the well-rounded tree care professional should have skills in, and with, both options. Some tree jobs are more suited, or more safely done by aerial lifts, while others require a climber’s techniques, and yet a third tree may require both skills to be done safely and efficiently. Lift operators can often reach the ends of branches more easily than a climber limb-walking out to them, but should be careful to avoid making “convenience cuts” to allow the lift access to a blocked area of the canopy.


Controlling the work site

Since use of an aerial lift often involves a motor vehicle, with its attendant noise and space needs, controlling the work site is just as, if not more, important as in climbing operations. Any operations on the side of a road — a common application for aerial lifts — requires that the correct federal and state department of transportation regulations be followed regarding signage, flagging personnel, cones, and high-visibility vests/clothing. Securing the work site means that bystanders, homeowners, children and similar targets are kept out of the work site through the use of ground personnel, warning tape, cones, etc. Many lifts will require a running engine for operation, making communication among crew members a challenge. Whistles, hand signals and radios are all communication options that should be considered in this noisy environment.


Lift placement and set-up

A lift in tree care operations is only going to be as stable as the ground it is set-up on, so proper set-up is key for safe operation. Not only does the set-up have a great deal to do with the safety of the aerial lift, it can also have a huge impact on the efficiency of the job. A lift that has to be continually moved from spot to spot around the tree is doing no favors for the bottom line. All necessary outriggers for the particular model of lift must be extended and seated securely prior to any aerial operations, including the pre-work function test. Given the work environment of most tree jobs, this will often require the use of pads and cribbing on the turf or dirt to provide safe secure footing for the outriggers. The leverage involved when the boom is extended at various angles puts a great deal of force on the outrigger and its pads, so soft ground or recently dug areas must be examined closely and suspiciously. The required tires on aerial-lift-related vehicles or trailers should be chocked securely with a true wheel chock, not someone’s lunch box or old hard hat.


Personal protective equipment

The basics for personal protective equipment for aerial lift operations remain the same as climbing operations; and hearing, eye, and head protection must be worn during operations. The federal standards only require the use of a body belt and fall restraint lanyard when operating most aerial lifts in tree operations, but a full-body harness and decelerating fall-arrest lanyard are a much better idea (and are required by some individual states). The body belt and short fall restraint lanyard are meant to prevent the operator from getting in a position from which they might fall, but this system is often negated when the operator chooses to use a longer lanyard. A full-body harness not only better distributes the forces experienced by the operator during a fall, but also provides many more options for evacuation/extrication from the lift should that become necessary. The deceleration lanyard used with a full-body harness does just what its name implies, decelerates the operator’s fall, lessening the forces of impact experienced. The deceleration lanyard is meant to, and should be, attached to the dorsal attachment point on the full-body harness. Neither system will do any good if it is not properly connected to the appropriate attachment point on the lift or bucket — thus operators must be securely connected to the lift before and throughout and aerial operations.


Utilities and electricity

The insulated capacities of many aerial lifts can often lead to a false sense of safety when working around utilities or other energized conductors. Any personnel working within the minimum approach distances of an energized conductor must be a line clearance arborist or a line clearance arborist trainee with the required electrical hazard knowledge and training. In addition, lifts with dielectric capabilities must be inspected regularly and formally as recommended by the manufacturer to ensure they have retained that capacity. In short, caution and care should always be taken by operators when working around electrical conductors, and the insulated qualities of the lift not relied upon to protect the operator and ground personnel near, or touching, the truck.


Work plan

As mentioned previously, lift set-up can have a large impact on the efficiency of the job, as well as its safety. Forestry packages, where the chips are blown into the back of the truck that the lift is mounted on, should be placed for the best use of the lift, not the chipper. If need be, the chipping can often be accomplished much more quickly after the cutting and the lift are done, rather than having neither lift nor chipper in the right spot. When removing large wood, operators should take care to avoid bouncing pieces or branches off the boom or truck itself, and use rigging systems when needed. What may seem like fairly minor impacts will, over time, take a toll on the structure and mechanism that is keeping the operator aloft.


Emergency response

Aerial lift operations in tree care come with their own challenges and requirements in the event of an emergency. Crews should be trained in, and have the equipment available for, both extrication and evacuation of an aerial lift operator. As mentioned in a previous column, extrication is the retrieval and removal of an unconscious or severely injured operator, while evacuation is the self-rescue or descent of an operator from a damaged or incapacitated lift. Both require different skills, training and equipment; and should be a key part of an aerial lift using company’s emergency response plan.


Aerial lifts are yet another excellent weapon in the tree care professional’s arsenal; and one that can be quite effective if used safely and appropriately. The few basic principles and topic discussed here should, with further training and experience, help tree care professionals better use any and all of the wide variety of aerial devices currently available.


Michael “House” Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions www.northamericantrainingsolutions.com and Arbor Canada Training and Education www.arborcanada.com He is currently located in Lancaster, Ky., and can be reached via e-mail at house@houseoftain.com


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