Staying in touch with hazards – lithium-ion batteries

An often ignored component of health and safety systems policy manuals is the section describing, ‘Keeping Current with Health & Safety Info’.

The process for keeping current with relevant health and safety information, legislation, guidelines and standards is usually described something like:

•           WorkSafe and ACC website media releases

•           Briefings and updates from external health and safety advisors

•           Accessing publications and information such as from Industry Associations

•           Annual legislative compliance assessment

•           Attendance at related conferences, workshop, seminars, meetings etc.

All-too-often however, the worthy intention is lost in the daily pressures of running an operation. It sounds hard so it must be.

Thankfully, being receptive to new information has never been easier, with a myriad of organisations and bodies disseminating information across the web.

Take lithium-ion batteries as an example. Social media is full of footage of spectacular and violent fires arising from the proliferation of lithium-ion batteries in everything from e-cigarettes to laptops, bikes and cars.  It seems these miracles of modern science have a dark side.

What’s happening here? More importantly, is this something that we should be considering as a hazard in our workplace?

Yes, certainly.

Due to its chemical composition and structure, lithium-ion batteries can overheat, leading to leakage of flammable gases, fire and explosion, particularly when under charge or discharge. The resultant fierce fires are not just an overseas tale, in New Zealand, a tally of garage fires and explosions and at least one recycling yard fire have all been attributed to lithium-ion batteries.

Technical solutions are on the horizon with solid state lithium-metal batteries or even silver-zinc batteries offering hope if they become commercially viable. Meanwhile, the lithium-ion are well embedded in virtually every commercial application you will encounter. And potentially creating a risk to you and your staff.

The task of making industry aware of the hazards, possible controls and future solutions for lithium-ion batteries has been shouldered by the NZ Institute of Hazard Substances Management. Its regular Flashpoint magazine draws readers attention to the topic in an informative and simple read.

Awareness of the risk is the first step towards controls that consider the safe storage, charging, life span and disposal of lithium-ion batteries. Battery charging alongside combustible items and re-purposing EV batteries should be avoided. Obsolescence plans and dedicated waste disposal methods should be encouraged.

Keeping in touch with organisations and publications via their mailing lists is not just a convenient method of complying with your health and safety policy manual. Case Law shows us that the availability of such information in the public domain can be considered when determining PCBU culpability; was the hazard reasonably predictable? Ignorance is not a defense.

Craig Carlyle is director at Maintenance Transformations. His expertise lies in the practical application of maintenance and health and safety management systems in the workplace. He is also a life member of the Maintenance Engineering Society of NZ.

The information and opinions within this column are not necessarily the views or opinions of Xpress Engineer NZ, NZ Engineering News or the parent company, Hayley Media.