Aerial Lift Safety 101

The following article, titled, Aerial Lift Safety 101 was published on December 27, 2018, on Tree Services Magazine website

The article details how the options and choices for aerial lifts have increased for tree care companies, what hasn’t changed is  the importance of operating these machines properly and safely

You can read the full article at the Tree Services Magazine Website or just scroll below. 


Aerial lifts aren’t just limited to bucket trucks anymore. These days, they’re are 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.

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

While the options and choices have increased for tree care companies interested in purchasing an aerial lift, one thing hasn’t changed – the importance of operating these machines properly and safely. With this in mind, we’ve combed through our archives and compiled some helpful safety tips and pieces of advice for staying safe while operating aerial lifts. Though many tree care workers have this information memorized, it never hurts to have a refresher course or be reminded of what to do and what not to do:

  • 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 your least-experienced and least-trained crew members.
  • 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 tested with no one in the bucket or on the platform to ensure that it’s functioning correctly.

  • Cleanliness does have an impact on the performance and safety of aerial lifts, particularly in regard to electrical conductivity. Regular cleaning with the appropriate products is recommended.
  • 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.

  • 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 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.

  • Setup choice and location are key to safe aerial lift use — these factors 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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 your 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.
  • The dielectric capabilities of some lifts can lead to operators being a bit casual around energized conductors or utility wires. 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.

A prepackaged aerial lift evacuation system manufactured by Buckingham Manufacturing

  • 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.
  • Emergency preparedness plans are vital in aerial lift 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.
  • There are a number of scenarios that can result in the need for an aerial lift operator 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 usual use and descent, or even an operator thrown out of the bucket dangling from their harness and unable to regain the 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.

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.

  • 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 light smaller-diameter line meeting the strength requirements. Operators should examine, once again prior to an actual emergency, the method in which they are going to anchor this escape line, not only for safety and security but also to avoid chafing and rubbing against sharp edges of the lift. Also, it’s crucial to make sure that the chosen anchoring system doesn’t put the operator in a difficult body position to exit the lift.
  • An evacuation system can certainly be simply a climbing system in the bucket. Keep in mind, this will take up much more space than one of the manufactured systems. Therefore, users should make sure that it works with the harness they wear in the lift and that appropriate anchors are available.
  • Dangling in a five-point/full-body harness from the dorsal attachment point, though more comfortable than hanging with a body belt lodged in one’s armpits, is not only uncomfortable and painful after a short period of time, but it can be physically dangerous. A condition called suspension trauma can sometimes develop where blood gathers and pools in areas where full circulation is restricted by the harness. Straps are available that live in a belt pouch on the operator’s waist and allow the user to step up periodically, relieving the harness’ pressure.