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Awareness of Lithium-ion batteries

Lithium-ion use in rechargeable batteries is common among laptops, mobile phones, e-cigarettes and electric vehicles and is seen as a key component as the world eyes a green energy transition from fossil fuels.

However, despite the batteries’ obvious advantages, a lack of awareness exists around their fire risks.
Awareness of Lithium-ion batteries

A survey of over 500 UK organisations revealed that only 85% have risk assessments for lithium-ion batteries on-site.

A statistic that is of huge concern.

There has also been a steady rise in lithium-ion battery fires as the number of devices containing them increases.

As we move forward lithium-ion batteries are a huge part of our lives with phones, e-bikes, e-scooters, electric vehicles, laptops etc.

Please don’t panic these are generally safe products!!

So as always – education is key.

The use and storage of these batteries must be a part of your fire risk assessment.

There have been 2 big issues that has started this need for education:

First was the Samsung phone recall in 2016 of 2 million handsets after a defective component caused a fire and the 2nd was a UPS cargo flight from Dubai to Cologne where the 2 pilots died after a thermal event occurred in the cargo hold, they tried to go back to land. They had smoke detection in the hold but no fire suppression system. This has started new airline procedures.

There are so many great websites to get educated such as https://batteryuniversity.com/ and https://firechiefglobal.com/

Here is an 8-step action plan:

Proactive actions:

  1. Education – identify the unique attributes of the batteries and educate people.
  2. Assess – look at the scale of risk that’s present in an environment.
  3. Segregate – separate batteries from people and combustible material.
  4. Control – implement additional controls as relevant, such as charging during the day when there are staff present rather than at night when the building is empty. If staff drop a laptop or phone what are the procedures for reporting this. Charge to 80% then let the laptop get down to 20% this also increases the life of the batteries.

Reactive actions:

  1. Train – train people to implement the correct response to a fire.
  2. Suppression – mitigate against fire to buy time.
  3. Act – where appropriate, act early to stop the spread of fire.
  4. Containment – where appropriate, allow the fire to burn out safely.

What is the main safety concern with lithium-ion batteries?

Where a battery cell creates more heat than it can effectively dissipate, it can lead to a rapid uncontrolled release of heat energy, known as ‘thermal runaway’. This can result in a fire or explosion, and may occur as a result of manufacturing defects, mechanical damage, exposure to external heating or overcharging/over-discharging.

Thermal runaway can lead to the venting of a range of gases from the battery casings, such as hydrogen (extremely flammable), carbon monoxide (toxic, asphyxiant, and flammable), and hydrogen fluoride gas (acutely toxic and corrosive).

If Lithium-ion batteries are handled, stored, charged or used in an unsafe way within a building, this can have a significant impact on the safety of people in or around the premises.

Fire safety legislation in the UK requires the responsible person to reduce the risk of fire and the risk of the spread of fire on the premises. The responsible person must also take such general fire precautions as will ensure the safety of their employees; and take such general fire precautions as may reasonably be required to ensure that the premises are safe.

Ensuring your building is lithium-ion battery safe and compliant

The extent of the use, handling, storage and charging of lithium-ion batteries will vary considerably from premises to premises. Fire safety management controls will also therefore need to be scaled appropriately for the level of hazard presented.

Undertaking a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment in compliance with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, is the first step to ensuring the level of fire safety management and provision of effective fire safety controls is appropriate for the building. From there, appropriate levels of controls can be determined to mitigate the level of risk encountered in the circumstances of the case.

How can I ensure that my Lithium-ion battery arrangements are effective?

The use, storage, handling and charging of Lithium-ion batteries can increase the risk of fire within a premises, and therefore increase the risk of harm to people to whom there is a duty of care to protect.

Undertaking a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment in compliance with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, is the first step. The fire risk assessment should be undertaken by a suitably competent person and should cover handling, storage, use, and charging of lithium-ion batteries.

Does a fire risk assessment have to cover Lithium-ion batteries?

A fire risk assessment is a careful look at your premises, the way in which they are used and the people who use them, from a fire safety perspective. It’s about understanding the potential risks, then making recommendations to ensure that your fire safety precautions are adequate to keep people safe.

The significant findings from the fire risk assessment should provide recommendations on how to ensure that Lithium-ion batteries are handled, used, stored or charged safely. Each contribute to a strategy for fire risk management and safety measures.

Typical recommendations may relate to:

  • Only using equipment that is supplied by reputable manufacturers or suppliers and only charging batteries with a suitable OEM (original equipment manufacturer) or compatible charger designed to safely charge the specific battery cells or battery packs in use.
  • Frequent inspections of batteries for signs of damage. (Never use damaged or defective batteries.)
  • Ensuring that battery handling areas are dry, cool, well-ventilated and free from high levels of humidity.
  • Ensuring that battery handling areas are free from flammable or combustible materials, sharp objects and that batteries are not left in contact with conductive materials.
  • Ensuring that battery charging is well managed by trained staff ensuring that batteries are removed from chargers after charging is complete, and that batteries are not left on charge in un-occupied locations.
  • Ensuring that staff are fully trained on the emergency procedures and the specific instructions for dealing with damaged or faulty batteries. Staff should be aware of their limitations in relation to dealing with fires involving Lithium-ion batteries.
  • Keeping batteries not in use in appropriate enclosures such as a proprietary metal battery storage cabinets or fireproof safety bags.
  • Provision and maintenance of a suitable smoke detection system which provides adequate warning to other occupants of the building (ideally combining smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) detection).
  • Limiting the size of storage areas, and ensuring they are dedicated to Lithium-ion battery storage only.
  • Consideration of externally sited, non-combustible containers or enclosures positioned no less than 3 metres from other buildings, equipment or risks.
  • Provision of 2-hour rated fire compartmentation where Lithium-ion storage forms part of an internal storage arrangement.
  • Reducing the potential for thermal runaway by reducing the State of Charge (SOC).
  • Consideration for the provision of sprinklers to an appropriate sprinkler system design. (The packaging arrangements of lithium-ion batteries is considered to be a key element in the success or failure of a sprinkler protection system. Fire control may be achieved when sprinklers wet and cool cardboard packaging, such that chain thermal runaway reactions are prevented and fire spread contained.)
  • Consideration for the provision of a fixed extinguishing agent flooding system.

Where Lithium-ion batteries are found to be used, stored or charged in the premises, appropriate recommendations will be made to support you in taking the most appropriate actions in relation to this risk.