The number of lithium-ion fire-related incidents has seen an increase; over recent months, there have been more media reports around fires relating to lithium-ion batteries, particularly during the charging process. Michelle Pitkin, a Compliance Officer and Chair of the IOSH Fire Risk Management Group (FRMG) shares her thoughts on these batteries, with particular reference to the storage of the batteries at the end of their life.
The reports around fires relating to lithium-ion battery fires over recent months have seen an increase in media reports; these have centred around the charging process:
One news story, in particular, was at the Grand-Couronne, France, where a fire reportedly started in a storage area containing an estimated 8000 lithium batteries before spreading to a neighbouring unit.
The storage of lithium-ion batteries, when they are no longer needed, is, however, less publicised, but it is just as important to ensure that used batteries are stored in suitable conditions and are handled with care.
So what legislation is in place for lithium-ion batteries; what guidance is there for storing these types of batteries?
Currently, lithium-ion batteries do not fall under any set piece of legislation. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) centres around substances which cause harm to health, and the Dangerous Substances and Explosives Regulations (DSEAR) is specific to dangerous substances, which are substances used or which are present at work that could, and if not properly controlled, cause harm to people as a result of a fire or explosion or corrosion of metal; lithium-ion batteries when in normal use pose no risk.
So how is it best to store these batteries when they have come to the end of their life?
Under normal conditions, lithium-ion batteries pose no risk; they do have a tendency to begin to degrade soon after their manufacture. The average life span of a lithium-ion battery is typically limited to 2 to 3 years from manufacture.
When storing used lithium-ion batteries, ensure:
- They are kept in a dry environment for batteries only
- They are kept separate from all combustible items – should they self-combust, being with combustible items will fuel the fire
- Minimal numbers are kept- batteries can give off heat which can, in certain circumstances, cause thermal runaway Thermal runaway – Wikipedia
- Regular collections of waste batteries are scheduled- this will prevent build-up of waste and possible heat build-up due to excessive numbers
- The prevention of water ingress – the internal battery safety devices can get damaged, and the battery can experience overheating rupture and ignition
- Batteries are checked for external damages- damages can increase the risk of fire
- Fire detection is within the storage area or where there is the likelihood of any combustible material being stored
- Suitable fire-fighting media is in place. Due to the chemical nature of a cell fire occurring in a lithium-ion battery, standard fire extinguishers, i.e., foam and water, will not work. Flooding the battery with water is the only way to extinguish a lithium battery fire. Additional fire extinguishment can be utilised through the application of various other forms of fire protection, including:
- Dry powder extinguishers
- Carbon dioxide extinguishers
- Water mist
- Fire blanket systems
Although DSEAR is not required to be followed, there are elements of the regulation which do give good advice.
The fire risk assessment requirements are key to ensuring that suitable control measures are set in place; this includes information, instruction and training for staff, and emergency arrangements are suitable to control measures for the environment in which the batteries are to be stored as well as quantity.
Additional guidance can be found with the FPA Free Documents | Fire Protection Association (thefpa.co.uk)
Ian Scott, FRMG Committee member, has produced a short presentation to aid the understanding of Lithium-ion batteries in relation to DSEAR.