Operate an Aerial Lift

Whether you are trimming limbs from tall trees in your lawn, or replacing or painting trim on a multistory home, an aerial lift can make the job safer and easier. These are large and powerful machines, and there are things you should consider before renting one.


  1. Determine if the project you are planning justifies the expense of renting an aerial lift. If you can make do with a ladder or scaffolding, you will likely save a lot of money.
  2. Get quotes from several rental companies if you are renting your aerial lift. Determine if the machine you rent (or purchase) is suitable for the terrain it will operate on and have sufficient reach and capacity for the work it is intended to do. Here are some items to ask about when dealing with the rental company:
    • Weight capacity. Aerial lifts can raise a load of between 500 and 1000 pounds. If more than one person will be needed in the basket, along with their tools, a larger capacity lift will probably be needed.
    • Fuel type. Aerial lifts typically use either gasoline, diesel, or liquefied petroleum gas (propane, for example). You will want to choose a lift that you can obtain fuel for if you plan to use it extensively.
    • Terrain type. Aerial lifts come in either two wheel drive or four wheel drive, and have different tire treads (or even bulldozer-like tracks for soft or sandy soils). If your project will be done on sloping or very soft ground, an aerial lift might not be a good choice at all.
    • Reach. Aerial lifts range from {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} to over {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} in vertical reach. They also can extend horizontally, but telescoping out at a low boom angle reduces the lift's weight capacity and stability.
  3. Check with the rental company about renter's insurance, delivery and pickup fees, cleaning and refueling charges, and other costs associated with the equipment rental. These hidden costs can more than double the price quoted.
  4. Obtain whatever tools and materials you need to perform the work you plan to do using the aerial lift. This is especially important if you are renting the lift, as slowdowns may occur if you have to shop for these items after you begin the job.
  5. Familiarize yourself with the lift when it is delivered. In the United States, OSHA requires that all aerial lifts operated by an employee in his course of work must have an operator's manual located on the equipment. Taking a look at all the controls, and reviewing their function in the operator's manual will give you a basic understanding of how the particular lift you are going to use operates.
  6. Check the condition of the lift. This should be done upon accepting delivery of a machine from a rental company as well, since you may be responsible for any damage that occurs to the lift while you are using it. An inspection of the machine should be made at the beginning of each day's use to insure it is safe to operate. Here are the general items to look at:
    • Fuel level. If you are working in the basket and the machine runs out of fuel, you may be stranded if no one is around to use the auxiliary controls to lower the machine from the ground control panel.
    • Tire condition. Never operate an aerial lift with underinflated tires, or tires showing damage which may cause them to fail. When an aerial lift is operating under load, a rapidly deflating tire can cause the machine to overbalance and turn over.
    • Hydraulic hoses should be inspected for damage, leaks, kinking, or exposure to abrasion. Repair or replace any hoses that appear to be in danger of failing.
    • Fire extinguisher should be mounted in an easily accessible location.
    • Check the oil and coolant levels in the lift's engine.
    • Make sure all access panels are secured.
    • Check your work area for unlevel or unstable ground, and look at the swing radius of the machine to make sure it doesn't hit adjacent structures when the machine is rotated.
  7. Turn the remote key switch to Platform Control at the ground control panel. This enables the lift engine to be cranked from the platform, and engages the platform control panel for controlling the lift's operation.
  8. Make sure the red kill switch button is pulled out at the ground control panel.
  9. Put on a suitable fall arrest harness. Adjust the suspension webbing so it fits properly, and check the condition of the lanyard.
  10. Climb into the work basket (platform), latch the gate, and fasten the fall arrest lanyard to the D ring provided on the platform.
  11. Check to make sure all control identification on the console is readable. There are several different electrical switches and joysticks that control the lift's operation, and each should be clearly labeled, including the direction of motion they control.
  12. Pull the red kill switch button out to enable the engine start switch and power up the console. Note that on the console there is also an instrument cluster which should give at least the following basic information:
    • A tilt or out of level warning indicator
    • A capacity meter. As the boom is extended, the amount of capacity normally changes on each machine. Booming out at a low angle reduces the machines capacity by as much as one half.
    • Fuel gauge
  13. Push the engine start switch. This is usually indicated by a cranking engine symbol. If the engine doesn't turn over when the switch is pushed, you may have to recheck the ground control console kill switch or the master key to make sure they are in the correct position. Refer to the operator's manual if you cannot get the machine to crank easily.
  14. Stop and take a moment to thoroughly scan the area above and around you, looking specifically for power lines or other hazards.
  15. Look on the platform floor for a boot like enclosure. This is the control engage lever, and is operated by placing your foot in the boot-like cover and pressing down the switch with the toe of your boot to enable to machine's controls. The engine should rev up when the switch is functioning properly, and most machines are equipped with an alarm that sounds when it is operated to warn bystanders the machine is moving.
  16. Toggle the boom control joystick to raise the boom. Go slowly to start with, it takes time to get used to the motion of the boom. For lifts equipped with a speed control dial feature, dial or select slow speed until you are comfortable operating the machine. Most aerial lift booms are raised by pushing the left toggle or joystick forward, and the force you apply is proportional to the speed the boom operates. Newer lifts have a safety device built into both joysticks (boom control and drive/steer) that requires you to lift a ring underneath the knob on the joystick to allow the device to engage. This prevents the platform from moving unexpectedly if the control is bumped while you are working.
  17. Swing the platform to familiarize yourself with this motion/function. This is done by toggling the joystick in the direction you want the boom to swing (left or right, or clockwise/counterclockwise). Watch for obstructions any time you swing the boom.
  18. Telescope the boom out and in by toggling the control indicated for this feature. Note that smaller, compact aerial lifts may not have telescoping segments in their boom.
  19. Familiarize yourself with the rest of the aerial lifts controls, such as the platform rotate control and the platform tilt control. Practice using each of the lift's functions in a clear, level area before maneuvering it near a structure you intend to work on with it.
  20. Drive the machine to get the feel of the steering/drive controls. You should lower the work platform to about three feet above the ground, with the boom telescoped in to its shortest length, and position the platform at a slight angle from the centerline of the drive wheels to allow you to see in front of the machine while it is moving. Again, it is urgent you practice in a level, clear area before maneuvering around structures or obstacles.
  21. Use the right (usually) joystick to engage the drive wheels. Most joysticks have steering buttons on top, so to turn your wheels to the right, toggle the right button (reversed if you are backing the machine), to turn left, toggle the left button. Push forward on the joystick to drive the machine forward, and pull the joystick back to back the machine. Again, note that the further you push or pull the joystick, the faster the machine will travel, so push and pull the joystick gently until you become familiar with the motion of the machine.
  22. Become familiar with all the machine's controls and functions before approaching a structure or position from which you plan to work. Patience is critical in operating an aerial lift, and mistakes can be deadly or very costly. Read the warnings below, and remember, check out the operator's manual for detailed information about the particular lift you are using.


  • If possible, find a person who is experienced in operating an aerial lift to help you learn the safe operation of the machine.
  • Make sure the lift you choose will have sufficient reach and capacity to do the job.
  • Another source for equipment and expert operating advice could be local tree trimming companies or sign/lighting maintenance companies, who may bring a machine to you and charge by the hour while you do the aerial work. The cost could be less than renting from an equipment rental outfit, when you consider daily minimum and delivery charges.
  • Plan carefully so the lift can be used efficiently.


  • Keep the work platform clean and free of debris.
  • Remove the master control key when the machine is unattended.
  • Use a suitable fall arrest system/safety harness.
  • Never exceed the machines capacity.
  • Watch for obstructions when driving and operating the machine.
  • Never use an aerial work platform for hoisting loads.
  • Stay clear of overhead power lines.
  • Check the condition of the machine daily.

Things You'll Need

  • A clear, level work area
  • Stable soil to drive on
  • Safety harness/ fall arrest system

Related Articles

You may like