An intermodal container traveling by rail and reportedly carrying recycled lithium batteries caught fire and exploded outside of downtown Houston last week. The fire was extinguished by first responders and no injuries were reported.
Multiple sources reporting this story quote a Union Pacific representative as saying that lithium batteries are not considered hazardous materials
. This is, unfortunately, a common misconception about lithium batteries in transportation.
While small lithium batteries—like those found in most consumer electronics—qualify for significant relief
from the full burden of US hazardous materials shipping regulations, there are hazmat packaging, marking, and labeling requirements that must
be followed to ship these batteries.
In addition to packaging, marking, and labeling lithium batteries in line with Federal regulations, shippers must train employees on safe lithium battery shipping practices.
What Is “Thermal Runaway”?
Lithium-ion and lithium-metal batteries have potential to store tremendous amounts of energy. While fires involving batteries are relatively uncommon, when they do happen, they can involve not only fire, but also venting of gas, flying metal shrapnel, harmful smoke, and even—as in this case—explosions so powerful that they break the windows of surrounding homes and businesses.
These incidents start with something called “thermal runaway.” Thermal runaway occurs when a lithium battery short circuits, causing overheating within the battery. The rising temperature speeds up a chemical reaction within the battery, which in turn produces more heat. This cycle continues until the battery ignites or explodes.
For more on thermal runaway and the hazards of lithium batteries, read our 2015 article How Lithium Batteries Become a Workplace Hazard.
New Shipping Requirements for Lithium Batteries
The rules for shipping lithium batteries by ground, air, and vessel have undergone significant changes in recent years—as the popularity and performance of lithium batteries have made them more and more popular. Most recently, US DOT published Final Rule HM-215N,
which, among other things, adopts new lithium battery marking and labeling requirements for ground shipments from international standards already used by air and vessel shippers. KHOU.com has more on the lithium battery incident in Houston last week.
Expert Lithium Battery Safety and Shipping Training
Employees who handle lithium batteries in the workplace must know the hazards these batteries pose and how to protect themselves and co-workers. The interactive Lithium Battery Safety Online Course
is designed specifically for employees who handle and store lithium-ion or lithium-metal batteries at work.
Lithium battery shippers get this safety course for free with enrollment in the Shipping Lithium Batteries Online Course,
which provides full DG training on the US DOT, IATA DGR
, and IMDG Code
hazmat shipping rules that apply to shipments of lithium-ion and lithium metal batteries. Personnel who package, mark, label, load, unload, or complete shipping papers for lithium batteries must be trained once every three years under US DOT rules.