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What Is An Aerial Lift? Uses and Types Explained

What Is An Aerial Lift? Uses and Types Explained

An aerial lift — also called an aerial work platform — is a type of heavy equipment used to lift people. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA), aerial lifts include extensible boom platforms, aerial ladders, articulating boom platforms, and a combination of these devices.

While aerial lifts have multiple uses on the construction site, their versatility can be utilized in other industries as well. From sporting events to farm work, we’ll explain everything an aerial lift can do for your job site or industry.

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Types of Aerial Lifts

what is an aerial lift

Aerial lifts fall into several categories. Within these categories, there are specific types of aerial lifts that can meet your needs, depending on how high you need to go, the space where you’re working, and what you need to lift.

Scissor Lifts vs. Aerial Lifts

Per OSHA guidelines, a scissor lift is classified as a “mobile scaffold”, not an aerial lift. However, like aerial lifts, scissor lifts are used to lift personnel and in certain situations they may be a better choice than boom lifts or telehandlers.

Aerial Ladders

Aerial ladders are extendable, mechanically-operated ladders that are mounted to trucks. This equipment allows workers to easily climb to higher heights with greater ease and safety. When performing jobs on tall buildings or power lines, aerial ladders may be the best, safest choice of equipment to use, especially when using workers to access hard-to-reach areas.

common types of lifts

Boom Lifts

Boom lifts operate using an arm that can raise a worker several stories and/or extend outward. They can go higher and farther out than other kinds of lifts, but they’re limited in the number of workers and the amount of material they can carry. There are three major types of boom lifts.

  • Articulating boom lift: This kind of lift features a jointed arm that bends in multiple places, allowing it to maneuver around or even over obstacles. Also called a knuckle lift, it can work well in confined spaces or crowded worksites.
  • Telescopic boom lift: These lifts lack the joints of an articulating lift and instead extend or contract in a straight line, like a telescope. They work well for jobs where a significant reach is needed.
  • Cherry picker: This type of lift is attached to a truck, making it a convenient tool for reaching power lines or trees. Its use to pick fruit in orchards is the origin of its name.

Scissor Lifts

Scissor lifts are classified by OSHA as a mobile scaffold, not a scissor lift. However, they perform similar functions to other types of aerial lifts on the job site. A scissor lift uses accordion-like supports to raise and lower its work platform vertically. Unlike a boom lift, it only goes up or down, so it needs to be situated close to whatever you’re working on. One advantage: Its larger aerial platform can accommodate more workers and material than a boom lift typically can. There are five types of scissor lifts:

  • Diesel scissor lift: Their diesel system provides these sturdy lifts with extra power to lift heavier loads and a larger platform. They’re also louder and emit fumes, so they’re made for outdoor use.
  • Hydraulic scissor lift: This type of lift employs a hand-operated system that makes use of hydraulic oil to raise or lower its platform. It can be slower when used in cold weather because the oil becomes thicker and stickier under those conditions.
  • Electric scissor lift: Lighter and more nimble than a diesel lift, these machines are great for indoor use: Their engines are quiet, and they don’t give off toxic fumes.
  • Rough terrain scissor lift: These lifts come equipped with heavy-duty tires and additional safety features that make them ideal for use on uneven outdoor terrain.
  • Pneumatic scissor lift: This kind of lift uses air pressure to raise and lower its platform. As a result, they’re less powerful than other lifts but don’t emit fumes and can be used effectively indoors.


A hybrid of sorts between a boom lift and forklift, telehandlers combine the mechanics of a forklift with an extended reach provided by a boom. The farther the telehandler’s arm extends, the less the telehandler can carry, so it’s important to know how far you need to reach and how much you need to lift.

  • Rotating telehandler: These machines are equipped with a rotating turret for increased directional versatility.
  • Fixed telehandler: Fixed telehandlers lack any rotating capability; their movement is dependent on how their arm extends.

Telehandlers are primarily used to lift equipment instead of workers. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) cautions against using telehandlers for lifting workers per the B56.6 standard and recommends using other equipment that’s suited for safe transport of workers, such as a boom lift, instead. If this cannot be avoided, be sure to consult the operations and safety manuals to ensure the man basket is being used correctly.

How To Choose the Right Aerial Lift

Here are a few things to consider when choosing an aerial lift for your job site.

  • Weight capacity: How many workers will need to be on your lift at one time, and will it need to be able to accommodate heavy materials as well? Be sure you know the manufacturer’s weight limit for any lift you’re considering so you know if it’s right for your needs.
  • Load capacity: Any platform you select should be able to bear the load you’re planning to lift. This means not just weight but size: Materials shouldn’t hang over the edge/railing.
  • Lift height and reach: It matters how high up you need to go and in what direction. A telescopic boom lift may be able to take you a lot higher than a scissor lift, and an articulating lift can give you access to areas other lifts may not be able to reach.
  • Platform size: Generally speaking, scissor lifts can accommodate more workers than boom lifts. A telescopic lift’s platform shape can affect its center of gravity, and wider platforms can usually carry less because they are heavier.
  • Job site conditions and work area: Indoor work will require a zero-emissions lift. An articulating lift is likely to work better in crowded areas and narrow spaces. An all-terrain lift will be required for uneven outdoor ground.

Ways To Use Aerial Lifts

Aerial lifts are commonly associated with construction, but their range and versatility make them well suited to a range of tasks. Maintenance, cleaning, warehousing, and farm work can all be facilitated with an aerial lift.

ways to use aerial lifts

1. Construction Industry Jobs

Aerial lifts are often used for tasks once performed using ladders and scaffolding. They’re more versatile than either of those options. Construction workers can use aerial lifts to install ductwork or wiring in a building. They can also be used to access work on pipes and HVAC units.

2. Events and Entertainment

Whether you’re covering a sporting event or shooting an awards show red carpet, aerial lifts can add another perspective and a different angle in the media and entertainment industry. Articulating boom lifts can be used to follow performers as they enter a venue or move around inside. Scissor lifts on the sidelines can raise camera operators above the action, giving the viewer more of a bird’s-eye view and an ability to see more of the action.

3. Video Production

A professional videographer goes above and beyond to ensure that their client’s video is excellent. In fact, many videographers are known for renting aerial lift equipment. One particular piece of equipment that has been used is an aerial lift platform. Taking aerial shots, zooming high and then low, can add extra depth to your project. Videos, whether they’re short movies or advertisements, need layers. Layers add creativity to any project and make the final product a success.

4. Orchard Work

Boom lifts were originally called “giraffes” by Walter E. Thornton-Trump when he invented them back in 1951. But people started calling them “cherry pickers” because they were used so often to harvest fruit. It was a lot easier than balancing on a ladder, which might not be too stable. They’re still used in this manner today, with the name being applied specifically to a kind of boom lift that’s attached to a truck.

5. Tree Care and Trimming

Aerial lifts aren’t just used for fruit trees, they’re used to prune taller trees that may be beyond the reach of most ladders. Some types of trees that need trimming can grow pretty tall. Maple trees, for example, can grow to more than 100 feet high. And just try reaching the upper branches of a eucalyptus or palm tree with a ladder from Lowe’s. Boom lifts provide much easier access.

6. Window Washing

A scissor lift can work great for washing windows. Instead of dealing with potentially unsteady planks, or hanging down in a full-body harness, workers can raise a scissor lift one level at a time with their feet securely on the platform. They don’t even have to move, and a scissor lift can raise them more than four stories high. Boom lifts can go even higher. (They can be used for cleaning other objects as well, such as tall statues and vertical towers.)

7. Telephone Line Repair

You’ve probably seen utility workers using boom lifts to work on telephone lines. It’s a common practice and a lot easier than using aerial ladders (the kind you see on a fire engine). An articulating boom lift or even a rotating telescopic lift are both more versatile in terms of getting workers into position to complete a job.

8. Building Inspections

Inspectors can use boom lifts to get an up-close view of a building. This can be important in discovering sometimes minor flaws that could create major problems later on. Boom lifts can give inspectors access to roofing, windows, plumbing, and electrical wiring.

9. Retail Warehouse Work

Aerial lifts can be a big help when working inside warehouses. Electric and pneumatic models can be used without damaging hearing (warehouses are great echo chambers, magnifying loud engine noises) or emitting toxic fumes. Narrow articulating boom lifts can help you maneuver in tight spaces, while electric scissor lifts can raise and lower you as you stack or retrieve inventory from high shelves.

10. Sporting Events

In addition to helping television crews cover games, aerial lifts can be used for stadium and arena maintenance or improvements. They can be employed to hang and replace lighting or maintain scoreboards. If there’s maintenance that needs to be done on the interior roof of an arena or domed stadium, they can be helpful there, too.

How to Safely Operate an Aerial Lift

As with any piece of heavy equipment, there are hazards associated with operating an aerial lift. In fact, aerial lift accidents account for roughly 3% of construction deaths, while others cause serious injury. Even though aerial lifts are equipped with guardrail systems for fall protection, falls are still a major concern, accounting for more than 200 construction deaths a year.

Between 2011 and 2014, a total of 360 of the 1,380 workers injured while operating an aerial lift were victims of slips, falls, or trips. Other hazards include tip-overs, falling objects, electrocutions, contact with other objects (including ceilings and overhead beams), structural failures, and becoming entangled with things like wires or ropes.

  • Inspect the equipment before use: Be sure vehicle and lift components are operating properly. Check for fluid levels and possible leaks, loose or missing parts, guardrails’ stability, battery levels, horns, brakes, etc.
  • Ensure all aerial lift operators are trained and certified: Workers using an aerial lift should be familiar with how to operate a lift, how to deal with hazards, how to perform inspections, and what the manufacturer’s requirements are. Only trained and authorized workers should operate this equipment.
  • Take measures to reduce falls: Be sure you’ve shut and latched the door behind you once you climb aboard the lift platform. Avoid leaning over guardrails and be aware of nearby obstructions. Be aware of rough terrain and be sure to use the proper kind of lift if you’re not on level ground.
  • Be aware of load-capacity limits: Don’t overload the lift with too many workers or too much material. Check the manufacturer’s specifications ahead of time.
  • Consider wind conditions before use: Do not operate an aerial lift if high winds are forecast. For instance, scissor lifts are generally unsafe to operate in winds higher than 28 miles per hour. At speeds of more than 20 mph, a qualified person must decide whether it is safe to proceed.
  • Be aware of overhead clearance: If you’re operating indoors or near overhead obstacles outdoors (trees, power lines, etc.), it’s important to make sure you maintain clearance overhead.

How To Get Aerial Lift Certification

Proper training is essential for aerial lift use and can contribute quite a bit to a safe work environment. Lift safety training is available online to obtain aerial lift certification at your own pace.

Courses go over safe practices, inspections, OSHA standards, and precautions to take to prevent falls and other accidents. You can log on and off for up to 180 days and download your Occupational Safety and Health Administration certificate when you’re done.

Some sites offer multiple types of training, such as Mobile Elevated Work Platform (MEWP) or supervisor training, to accompany basic aerial lift certification at a higher price point.


Aerial lifts are great tools for reaching places you might not normally be able to get to easily. They’re easier to use and often safer than ladders and more convenient and versatile than stationary scaffolding. And you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg to purchase one. Rental options are available by the day, week, or month for an array of different-size lifts with a variety of capabilities.

Whether your job calls for a scissor lift, articulating boom lift, or telescopic lift, you can find a piece of equipment that’s right for your job and worksite.

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