Lithium-ion batteries – a danger in the workplace?

By Rob Thacker, Sona Insurance Solutions.
Hands up all those who have seen videos online of sudden and frightening e-bike fires...
Published in UK Director Magazines Summer 2024

Protecting You & Your Business: Rob Thacker, Sona Insurance Solutions

You should be aware that the lithium-ion batteries responsible for the shocking e-bike fires shown online now power many commonly used gadgets, and that presents a risk in some workplaces. Such batteries are found in motor trade repair shops that work on electric and hybrid cars; in other sectors, they power forklifts, power tools, and various work vehicles.

Wherever they are present, their handling, storage, and safety procedures need to be embedded in the business’s fire risk assessment and health and safety training programmes.

A different kind of fire

Special attention is needed because a lithium-ion fire does not behave like a standard one. It cannot be tackled with traditional fire extinguishers, and nobody should attempt to extinguish one unless they have undergone specific training.

Thermal runaway – an irreversible and uncontrollable self-heating state – can happen in seconds, and this can lead to the breakout of a high-temperature fire, accompanied by smoke and vapours. An exploding battery can shatter fragments widely and emit hazardous, toxic, and potentially fatal fumes. If there is no ignition source, the cloud of toxic and explosive gases can pool at ground level, going against the traditional fire safety practice of keeping low to avoid fume inhalation.

With a lethal combination of substances present, such as hydrogen fluoride, carbon monoxide, cobalt, nickel, copper, and aluminium powder, the possible dangers to health include everything from irreparable eye and skin damage, to severe vomiting, ulceration of the mouth and throat, organ damage, and death through inhalation.

Be prepared

Creating a safety plan around the use of such batteries is imperative.

Establishing a segregated battery charging area with suitable ventilation, ideally away from the main building, may be one action. Keeping this area as a ‘restricted access zone’ for only essential staff, issued with appropriate PPE, may be another. Building in safety procedures – such as banning staff from carrying anything that could fall onto a battery or bridge its terminals – is good practice.  

Fire prevention measures include not exposing the batteries to excessive heat, cold, or humidity, and never stacking them under heavy items. No batteries should be charged overnight, and any found to be swollen, damaged, or dented should never be used.

If the worst happens, vermiculate extinguishers will help prevent a fire from spreading but professional assistance is vital, as a lithium-ion fire can reignite hours, days, or even weeks later. Having robust and well-practiced evacuation procedures, and an emergency response plan, is essential.

When finished with, all such batteries should be disposed of by a qualified company.

Talk to us about the best way to manage this workplace risk and how to put a robust emergency plan together. With the unpredictability surrounding these batteries, you could need this at any time.

Lithium-ion batteries – a danger in the workplace? 1

GET IN TOUCH

Rob Thacker is CEO of Sona Insurance Solutions.

T: 01206 964914
E: rob.thacker@sonainsurance.com
Or visit www.sonainsurance.com

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