Rescue And Retrieval In Aerial Lift Operations

Although aerial rescue is a topic that gets a great deal of attention in the tree care industry, the focus is often on the rescue of climbers using any one of a variety of rope climbing systems. And, although this focus is certainly merited and important, the capability to rescue and/or retrieve an operator from an aerial lift should not be neglected. While a rescue operation involving an aerial lift may not be as physically challenging to the rescue personnel as one involving a climbing system, it is still a complex process, and one that requires foresight, planning and training if it is to be successful. Obviously, companies using aerial lifts a great deal should put more focus on this type of training and preparation, while climbing companies less so, but all tree care professionals should be familiar with the general process and considerations, as a tree care professional can never tell when they may be confronted with an aerial lift operator in need of help. Knowledge of a few basic ideas will assist tree crews in being ready in the moment of need.


Aerial lift rescue and/or retrieval can be broken down into two types or categories: self-rescue or evacuation and rescue/extrication. Evacuation is when the operator is unhurt or mildly injured, but the lift is disabled or inoperable, leaving the operator to regain ground level safely without the use of the lift. Rescue/extrication operations occur when an operator is unconscious or otherwise unable to operate the lift, and fellow crew members must return them to ground level and extricate them from the bucket for medical treatment.

This system allows the user to ascend to get back to the bucket or release their lanyard. A small belt pouch unit on right is used to step up to release pressure of the harness. Photo: Michael Tain

Common sense

Aerial lift operators who do not use the appropriate safety equipment such as five-point/full-body harnesses and accompanying lanyards will require little in the way of rescue skills beyond medical treatment, as they will, if ejected from the bucket, hit the ground at a high rate of speed. Not wearing some form of fall prevention/fall restraint system is not only a violation of standard, but is also an excellent, though painful, way to learn that gravity is the law no matter where one is located. The use of body belts in place of full-body harnesses, while legal in some states under standards, makes evacuating a disabled lift while aloft extremely challenging, if not impossible, and more or less ensures severe pain, if not injury, in the event of an ejection.

Branch managers

The first, and best, option in the event of an unconscious or incapacitated lift operator is for the ground crew personnel to operate the lower controls to bring them to the ground as swiftly and safely as possible. This requires that all crew members be aware of not only where the controls are, but also how they are operated correctly. After all, in an emergency situation, trying to find the one branch manager who knows how to operate the lower controls is not an activity that time should be spent on, nor should time have to be spent determining what lever causes which movement, particularly when the operator is aloft with a severe chain saw laceration or huddled unconscious in the bottom of the bucket from a head injury. If electricity is involved, the entire equation changes, and, once again, all crew members must be familiar with the protocols involved with an energized aerial lift. Operating the lower controls with a pole pruner, saw or “chicken” stick is certainly possible, but is much easier in theory than in practice, so all personnel should have a chance to practice it prior to an actual emergency situation.

This system, from Buckingham, has both an Anthron descent device and a fiber ladder for lanyard release in the event of an ejection. Photo: Michael Tain


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. 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, and to make sure that their chosen anchoring system doesn’t put them in body positions that require an advanced degree in yoga to exit the lift. An evacuation system can certainly be simply a climbing system in the bucket, though it will take up much more space than one of the manufactured systems, and users should make sure that it works with the harness they wear in the lift, and that appropriate anchors are available.

Suspension trauma

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.

A pulley mechanical advantage system to remove an unconscious operator from the bucket. Anchoring strap which would attach to the boom is on left. Photo: Michael Tain

Release of lanyard

Having an evacuation system present, properly installed and trained in its use still does not guarantee an easy return to ground level. An ejected user will be dangling from the deceleration lanyard, securely attached at both ends, otherwise they would be on the ground in a poor state of repair. Thus, training in and access to a system that either allows the operator to get their weight off the lanyard and onto the evacuation system or regain some height to the bucket for lanyard release is imperative.


Removing a severely injured or unconscious arborist from the bucket or cage of an aerial lift can be both physically and mentally challenging for an unprepared and untrained ground crew. Typically, this operation is called extrication, and there are a variety of systems of assistance that are available to make it easier. A number of lifts have built-in existing systems, either manual or powered, that allow the bucket to be turned from the vertical to the horizontal, allowing the victim to be easily accessed and slid out for medical treatment. These systems will vary in operation on different manufacturers’ machines, and must be examined and practiced in calmer times to ensure safe, effective use when it counts. For those tree care companies with buckets that do not pivot or swivel, there are a large number of mechanical advantage systems available that may be used to lift the victim up vertically out of the bucket, all of which require some foresight and training as to anchor points, operation and installation.

Treatment/emergency response

Would-be rescuers must always first evaluate the scene for safety prior to starting any rescue operations, regardless of the seriousness of the injuries involved. A “second victim” is not only going to be unable to help the first, but is going to add to the chaos and confusion of the situation. Hopefully, all crew members will have basic first aid and CPR training, if not more; regardless, they should remember that their first obligation is to “do no harm.” An unconscious victim returned to ground level that is breathing and has a pulse may best be left in the bucket until the arrival of the emergency medical professionals, as removal from the bucket may create additional problems or injuries. Standard written emergency response protocols that all crew members are familiar with and trained in will go a long way towards making sure that all necessary actions are carried out in an emergency situation, which will in turn give the victim the greatest chance of recovery and/or survival.

Aerial lift rescue and retrieval operations require foresight, training and preparation, as do most safe, successful activities in the tree care industry, but a little time and basic preparation will go a long way toward making sure that in the event of an emergency involving a lift, the crew will respond safely, quickly and to the best of their abilities.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2011 and has been updated.

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