Aerial Lift Best Practices

Phillip Kelley Phillip Kelley
Contract Climber & Owner of Samara Tree Preservation and Training
More articles by Phillip Kelley.

During the past few years I have observed a rise in aerial lift use for arboriculture. An influx of tracked and other mounted lifts have made tree canopies more accessible than ever before. These tools can make a potentially hazardous tree removal safer and more productive. All that being said, I have also noticed an increase in accidents and injuries involving aerial lift devices.  

Some contributing factors for this increase can be traced back to a lack of training, either in operation of the lift, in tree risk assessment, or in rigging practices. Poorly executed rigging leading to tree parts hitting the boom and resulting in lift failure are very common. Contact with utility wires on the job site is also a cause of injury. 

Here are a few suggestions and reminders about safe work practices for aerial lifts that, if implemented, will make your day safer: 

Inspection of the lift

Lifts should be visually inspected by the operator prior to operation each day. This ensures the lift is functional and safe to use. A few things to look for include hydraulic leaks, cracks, loose bolts, and worn or discolored hoses. Visual inspections should only take a few minutes and can reduce hours of costly maintenance and medical bills. 

Lower control function testing and drift testing  

After visual inspection,  run the lift through a full range of motion using the lower controls. This must be done before climbing into the basket/bucket. These controls are extremely important because this is how someone will be rescued from the ground. Next, a drift test should be performed. Set a traffic cone (or some other measurement tool) on the ground off to the side of the lift. Move the bucket over the top of the cone so it is within a few inches of the cone. Turn off the truck and wait 3-5 minutes to make sure the boom does not drift down and touch the cone. If the boom does drift, remove the truck from service until it can be repaired. 

Job site safety assessment with your team

Identify any potential hazards, especially utility conductors, and discuss ways to mitigate or eliminate the hazards with your team. Also perform tree inspections and assess overall health and stability of the tree. Make sure everyone on the team is involved in this process. Agree on emergency response protocols so everyone on the team knows their role in the event of an emergency. Finally, establish a clearly defined work zone and drop zone. These should be marked so they are readily visible. No one may enter the drop zone without permission of the arborist working aloft. Struck-by’s are still the number one cause of fatalities in our industry, so this is a crucial step. 

Suiting up

Your fall protection harness shall have a sternal or dorsal attachment and meet industry standards for fall protection. An arborist belt without an upper attachment will not meet these requirements. Make sure your harness is the proper size and adjusted to fit you. Next, connect your fall arrest system with the harness and then to the life support attachment on the aerial lift, and be sure the bulky part of the fall arrest system is attached closest to you. The new ANSI standard will state that all fall protection attachments (snaps and carabiners) shall meet or exceed the Z359 standard and shall have a gate rating of 3,600 lbs. Please don’t ignore or skip this step! It is virtually impossible to fall out of an aerial lift device if you do this. 

Here are a few final things to consider when operating your aerial lift:

  • Make sure you have proper traffic control established (when applicable).  
  • Don’t let your outrigger cross into the opposite lane of traffic.  
  • Double check that ground under the outriggers is solid enough to support the truck.  
  • Never use your aerial lift as a crane to lift tree parts or as a rigging point from which to lower tree parts. These types of loads can easily cause the boom or cylinder to fail and bring you crashing to the ground.  
  • ANSI now states that aerial lift operators must have a saw scabbard for a chainsaw as well as a hand saw in the lift anytime during pruning or removal work.  
  • As lastly, as this bears repeating, practice aerial rescue scenarios with your team so they understand their responsibilities in an emergency. This is an opportunity to practice operating the lower controls so they can be confident using them in a stressful situation. 

Aerial Lift devices are amazing tools that when used properly can reduce risks and extend the careers of arborists. All we need to do is follow a few simple steps to ensure safe and productive tree work for years to come.