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Lithium-Ion Battery Safety in the Workplace

Lithium-Ion Battery Safety in the Workplace

Lithium-Ion (Lithium) Batteries when designed, manufactured, and used properly, are a safe, high energy density power source for devices in the workplace. 

Although normally safe, they may cause injury if they have design defects, are made of low-quality materials, are assembled incorrectly, are used, or recharged improperly, or are damaged. In this blog we take an in depth look at Lithium Battery Safety within the workplace.

Where are Lithium Batteries used?

Lithium batteries are commonly used as power sources for portable electronics such as mobile phones, laptops, tablets, and body cameras. They are also used in electric vehicles, e-scooters, electric wheelchairs and even implanted medical devices such as pacemakers. 

Less commonly thought of uses include in emergency lighting systems, uninterruptible power supplies used in electrical outages and renewable energy systems. It is important to note that the specific presence of lithium batteries will depend on the nature of the business and the equipment used.

The Hazards

As we mentioned in the introduction, lithium batteries are generally safe and unlikely to fail, so long as there are no defects, and the batteries are not damaged. If lithium batteries fail to operate safely or are damaged, they may present a fire and/or explosion hazard. Damage from improper use, charging, or storage may also cause lithium batteries to present a hazard. It is good practice to test lithium batteries and observe product recall requests.

Damage to lithium batteries can occur immediately or over a period of time, from physical impact (e.g., dropping, crushing or puncturing), exposure to certain temperatures (e.g., above 130°F or below freezing particularly when charging), and/or improper charging (e.g., some manufacturer authorised chargers will cycle the power to the battery on and off before it is fully charged to avoid overcharging. Ultra-fast chargers may not cycle power). Always follow manufacturer’s instructions.

Furthermore, heat released during cell failure can damage nearby cells, releasing more heat in a chain reaction known as a thermal runaway. The high energy density in lithium batteries makes them more susceptible to these reactions. Depending on the battery chemistry, size, design, component types, and amount of energy stored in the lithium cell, failures can result in chemical and/or combustion reactions, which can also result in heat releases and/or over-pressurisation. 

The by-products from a lithium battery combustion reaction are usually carbon dioxide and water vapor. In some lithium batteries, combustion can separate fluorine from lithium salts in the battery. If mixed with water vapours, fluorine may produce hydrofluoric acid, which is particularly hazardous because workers may not feel its effects until hours after skin exposure.

The Safe Use of Lithium Batteries in the Workplace

Workplace injuries from lithium battery defects or damage are preventable. When it comes to safely using lithium batteries in the workplace, here are some top tips to keep in mind: -

  • Risk Assessment: Conduct a thorough risk assessment to identify potential hazards associated with lithium batteries in your workplace. This should include evaluation the risks of fire, explosion, chemical exposure, and electrical hazards.
  • Storage: Store in a cool, dry place away from flammable materials. Use designated storage areas or containers to prevent accidental damage or exposure to extreme temperatures. 
  • Handling and Transporting: Handle with care, avoid any physical damage or punctures. When transporting, use appropriate packaging and follow regulations for hazardous materials transportation if applicable.
  • Charging: Only use chargers specifically designed for lithium batteries and follow the manufactures instructions. Avoid overcharging or leaving batteries unattended during the charging process.
  • Inspections: Regularly inspect lithium batteries for any signs of damage paying attention to any swelling, leaks, corrosion, or unusual odours. If any issues are found, do not use and properly dispose of the battery.
  • Training: Provide training to employees on the safe handling, storage, and disposal of lithium batteries. This should include understanding the risks associated with their use and how to respond to emergencies.
  • Fire Safety: Put appropriate fire safety measures in place, such as fire extinguishers and fire-resistant storage areas to mitigate the risks. Ensure employees are aware of the procedures to follow in case of a fire.
  • Disposal: Dispose of lithium batteries in accordance with local regulations and guidelines. Do not dispose of them in regular trash bins or incinerate them.

Eunomia and the Environmental Services Association produced a report on the costs of lithium-ion battery waste fires in 2021 which stated that over 200 waste fires are caused by lithium batteries every year in the UK, with damaging consequences for both the environment and society. 

Remember that these tips are general guidelines, and it’s important to consult specific safety guidelines and regulations relevant to your workplace and the type of lithium batteries being used. For further help on this topic contact ST Safety Services.