Lithium-ion batteries: a different kind of workplace risk

Whether we are aware of it or not, lithium-ion batteries now power many gadgets used in daily life. This includes e-bikes, around which videos circulate online, demonstrating their severe fire risk. Transfer the same logic to the world of work, and it is easy to see there are some workplaces in which the same severe risk exists.

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, the handling of lithium-ion batteries, their storage, and the procedures to accompany any fire incident relating to them need to be embedded in the business’s fire risk assessment and health and safety training programmes.

This is particularly true 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.

The main issue is that of thermal runaway – an irreversible and uncontrollable self-heating state a better can enter, often when overcharged or damaged. In just seconds, this can lead to the breakout of a high-temperature fire accompanied by smoke and vapours. An exploding battery can shatter fragments widely but also emit hazardous, toxic and potentially fatal fumes.

If there is no ignition source, a cloud of toxic and explosive gases can pool at ground level – precisely where those trained in traditional fire practice keep low, trying to avoid fume inhalation.

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

Creating a safety plan around the use of such batteries is imperative. Identifying suitable local exhaust ventilation in a segregated battery charging area may be one action.

Keeping this area as a restricted access zone for only essential staff, issued with appropriate PPE, may be another, but locating the area away from the main building is highly advisable. Building in safety procedures, such as banning staff from having metal objects in pockets or wearing or carrying anything that could fall onto a battery or bridge its terminals, is another good practice.

Vermiculate extinguishers will help prevent a fire spread but professional assistance is vital, as a lithium-ion fire can reignite hours, days or weeks later. Having robust and well-practiced evacuation procedures and an emergency response plan is essential for any business in which such batteries are used.

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 and carefully disposed of by a qualified company.

Talk to a broker about how to manage this workplace risk and put a robust emergency plan together. With the unpredictability of such batteries, you could need this at any time.