Aerial lifts for high-level maintenance

Aerial work platforms provide a safe and efficient means of getting to hard-to-reach overhead areas. They can quickly carry an operator, with tools and materials, to places that would require setting up ladders or scaffolding.An advantage of the aerial work platform is its ability to maneuver in tight spaces and hard-to-reach areas.

By Joseph L. Foszcz, Senior Editor, PLANT ENGINEERING Magazine October 1, 2001
Key concepts
Aerial lifts come in designs to suit nearly every application
Operator training is critical to safe use
Zero tailswing allows lift rotation in narrow aisles
Scissors lifts
Articulated arm
Telescoping boom
Telescoping/articulating booms
Safe operating procedures
Questions to ask when selecting an aerial work platform
Rent, buy, or lease?

Aerial work platforms provide a safe and efficient means of getting to hard-to-reach overhead areas. They can quickly carry an operator, with tools and materials, to places that would require setting up ladders or scaffolding.

An advantage of the aerial work platform is its ability to maneuver in tight spaces and hard-to-reach areas. Most of these units are self-propelled. There are models for use on smooth, hard, level surfaces such as concrete, asphalt, or tile and others for use on rough terrain.

Where overhead work is required, plants use these devices in maintenance and repair functions. Since there are many designs for aerial work platforms, several types can be used in the same application. The selection depends on each plant’s individual requirements.

Some small units are not self-propelled yet are easy to use on hard, flat surfaces. They require some means of pushing or towing. Larger models have their own power sources such as gasoline, diesel, LP gas engines, or batteries. Closed environments may dictate the use of batteries or LP gas.

In some cases aerial work platforms can be equipped with dual power sources, such as an internal combustion engine for outdoor work and an LP gas, dual-fuel engine for indoor work or for locations where recharging is inconvenient.

Aerial work platform functions can be handled with hydraulic or electric controls that are designed for easy and safe operation. Dual controls are usually provided, one at ground level and one on the work platform. If there are control or operator problems, ground level controls can be used to maneuver and lower the platform.


Units are equipped with safety features and are manufactured to meet all applicable ANSI and OSHA safety requirements. They also conform to approved requirements for materials, welding, electrical, wiring, workmanship, and load ratings.

Safety features include protection to prevent controls from being accidentally activated, emergency power systems, regulators that govern operating speeds, and locking cylinders, if there is a loss of hydraulic power.

Self-propelled and narrow-slab scissors lifts have pothole protection. This is a bar that lowers to within 1/2-in. of the slab to prevent excessive tipping should a wheel drop onto a pothole.

Some units are equipped with braking systems that set automatically when the machine comes to a stop or when power fails. Tilt sensors prevent operation when units are tipped 3 deg side-to-side or 6 deg front to back. Warning buzzers and lights activate when there is any platform movement.

Most units are equipped with 42-in. high safety rails and 4 in. or 6 in. kick plates. The kick plate feature prevents materials or tools from falling from the floor of the platform and keeps the operator’s feet within the confines of the platform for firm footing.

Scissors lifts

More than 60% of aerial work platforms made today are scissors lifts. The inherent limitation of vertical travel is overcome by platforms that can extend in any direction and be customized for a particular application (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Scissor lifts are the most popular type of aerial work platform.

The largest platforms and highest load capacities in manned aerial workstations are found in scissors lifts. Platform sizes up to 6 ft 11 in. x 25 ft and capacities to 2500 lb are available. Platforms can be extended up to 84 in. Working heights can reach 108 ft.

Platform designs range from simple rectangular shapes to extensible ends reaching hard-to-get-at places and custom-designed shapes for specialized work. Platforms have nonskid working surfaces, guard rails, and toe plates. Electrical outlets for power tools can be provided.

Scissors lifts retract to form a compact package that is readily moveable throughout the plant. Typical units will fit through a standard 36 x 80-in. doorway while some models are only 32-in. wide.


Mast/vertical lift type work platforms are one of the most common means of overhead access for maintenance and light repair work. Units are available in push-around and self-propelled models. They are lightweight, portable, and low-cost.

Telescoping mast work platforms are usually small, one-man units, for light-duty work. Typical load capacities are 300 lb for reach heights of 41-ft. Heavy-duty units have 52 x 204-in. platforms that will elevate 2000 lb loads to a height of 87-ft.

Mast-type work platforms are available in configurations to solve most plant problems. Designs include one-man baskets, rotating masts, platforms with extensions, and platforms on arms for over-and-under work.

Compact mast units fit through standard doorways. Special designs can fit through 24-in. wide openings. Narrow baskets, 22 in. wide, pass through ceiling panels and other overhead openings.

Articulated arm

An outgrowth of the vertical mast one-man lift is the articulated arm lift. The simple design allows horizontal extensions to 79-ft and vertical working heights to 150-ft. This type of work platform can place a man and material weighing up to 500 lb in extremely out-of-the-way work situations.

Manned buckets and upper booms are available in fiberglass to provide electrical insulation. Hydraulic power tool outlets can be supplied with insulated buckets. Noninsulated buckets can be equipped with electric power tool outlets.

These units can also be readily adapted to serve as material lifts. Hooks, hoists, or other attachments to handle up to a 2250-lb load can replace manned buckets.

Articulated arm units are available as self-propelled or trailer-mounted, since many applications require travel between job sites. For trailer-mounted units, long side reaches require the use of outriggers, which can be extended manually or under power. Self-propelled units have self-contained counterweights and do not require outriggers.

Telescoping boom

Telescoping boom aerial work platforms can operate in confined spaces to reach 120 ft vertically and 62 ft horizontally. Load capacities range from 300 to 1100 lb.

Platform sizes range from 24 x 24 in. to 36 x 96 in. Platforms can be swiveled 18- deg at the end of the boom to provide access to most jobs. Extending the telescoping boom while it is below a horizontal plane allows the platform to reach work below ground level. An articulating arm provides additional mobility.

Fig. 3. Telescoping booms can provide various power sources to the work platform.

Platforms can be supplied with pneumatic, hydraulic, or electric power sources for a variety of tools. The supply lines can be placed inside the telescoping boom sections to protect them from damage. Telescoping booms can be self propelled (Fig. 3), or truck mounted.

Telescoping/articulating booms

An interesting variation to telescoping booms is the addition of an articulating arm that provides the ability to reach up, out, and over obstructions. This configuration, sometimes called a jib or knuckle boom, can extend up to 63-ft horizontally and 126-ft vertically while carrying loads up to 500-lb.

Some platforms have automatic leveling and 180-deg rotation. Pneumatic, hydraulic, and electric power can be supplied to platforms for power tools. Platform sizes are available from 30 x 48 in. to 36 x 96 in. Controls have a foot-actuated deadman switch to stop all movement when released.

Booms use self-lubricating wear pads that require no lubrication and do not attract dirt and grit. Controls and power lines are enclosed or protected by the boom.

The compact dimensions of the turret and location of the ballast within it ensure the turret does not overhang at any point in the turret’s 360-deg rotation. This absence of overhang is known as zero tailswing and allows the boom to rotate in a space only as wide as the tire width (Fig. 4).

Zero tailswing and articulated arm placement allow most units to maneuver in narrow aisles and congested areas where space is limited. A battery or engine usually supplies power for self-propelled units.

Plant Engineering extends it appreciation to JLG Industries, Inc., for its assistance in the preparation of this article and in providing the cover photo.

Aerial work platform manufacturers
The following companies provided input for this article by responding to a written request from Plant Engineering magazine. For more information on their product lines, circle the number on the reader service card or visit their web sites.

Circle Company Scissors Most/vertical Articulated Telescoping Telescoping/articulated Manual Self-propelled Vehicle Articulating Mounted
Other aerial lift manufacturers include: Air Technical Industries,; Ballymore Co., Inc.,; Carbis, Inc.,; EGA Products, Inc.,; Handling Specialty, Inc.,
222 Bil-Jax, Inc. x x x
223 Bushman Equipment x x x x
224 Cotterman Co. x x
225 Genie Industries x x x x x x x x
226 Grove Worldwide x x x x
227 JLG Industries, Inc. x x x x x x x x
228 Lift-A-Loft Corp x x x x x
229 LPI Lift Systems x x x x x x x x
230 Skyjack x
Author Information
-Joseph L. Foszcz, Senior Editor, 630-320-7135,

Safe operating procedures

Aerial work platforms are personnel-lifting devices. It is essential that they be properly maintained and operated to perform all functions with maximum safety and efficiency. Following some sensible guidelines minimizes the possibility of any hazards to personnel working on or around aerial work platforms:

Permit only authorized and trained operators to operate this equipment.

Know the capacity and operating characteristics of the platform. Do not overload the platform. Load capacity is the total combined weight of personnel, tools, fixtures, accessories, etc.

Inspect the machine before each use as specified by the manufacturer and the employer.

Check the work area for hazards that might cause tipping over. Do not operate on soft or uneven surfaces or slopes in excess of 5-deg.

Require protective headgear (hard hats) to be worn by all personnel on the work platform. Wear a safety belt or harness, if required.

Do not elevate the platform without outriggers in the extended work position, if so equipped.

Do not store loose material, such as pipe, rope, or boxes, in the work platform.

Do not jerk controls. Operate smoothly and deliberately into and out of movements.

Do not sit or climb on platform railings. Keep both feet on the platform floor at all times.

Do not allow overhanging loads on the work platform.

Do not use ladders, planks, or other devices to extend or increase work positions from the platform.

Do not operate the platform within 10 ft of 50,000-V electrical lines, and always be aware of any nearby electrical wiring.

Do not override any safety devices.

Never remove or modify any part of the equipment unless authorized by the manufacturer.

Do not operate a platform that is malfunctioning.

If an aerial work platform is to be unattended, lower platform, shut off power, engage parking brake, and remove the key.

Questions to ask when selecting an aerial work platform

What is the maximum work height? It is considered 6-ft above platform height.

What is the maximum load capacity required? This includes people, tools, and material.

How large a work platform is required?

What is the narrowest aisle the aerial lift will travel down?

Is a tight turning radius required?

Will the lift travel from one floor to another?

Will the lift be used inside?

Must the lift travel when elevated?

Is a platform extension required to reach over obstacles?

Is a scissors lift required because of straight-up vertical work?

Is a boom lift required for reach?

Is an articulating boom required for up-and-over clearance?

Will work take place on or off-slab?

Is side reach required?

Rent, buy, or lease?


Pay only for time machine is actually used

Pay by the hour or day

Responsible only for maintenance

May get use of newer machines

No investment or debt


Most control over use


Less expensive for high use

Can build equity value


Conserve capital

Optimize cash flow

Protect against obsolescence

Reduce corporate taxes

Preserve credit availability

For information on renting equipment, go to the American Rental Association web site, For information on leasing equipment, go to the Equipment Leasing Association web site,