What's So Dangerous About Lithium Batteries?

Posted on 1/31/2019 by Joel Gregier, CDGP

Anyone who ships lithium batteries knows that they are high on the list of regulated hazmat. In fact, it is probably one of the top hazardous materials when it comes to inspections. But why is the Department of Transportation (DOT) so concerned with lithium batteries?

Low-frequency but High-risk Events

lithium_batteries_cellphone_stack.jpgLithium battery events are actually very unlikely. When calculated out, there are usually only around two or three battery-related events per one million batteries. However, when an event does occur, it is extremely dangerous.

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The biggest hazard associated with lithium batteries is the fires that they can create, but their emergencies can also lead to venting of gases, explosions, flying metal shrapnel, and harmful smoke. If you are not convinced that these are serious effects, lithium batteries have been reported as the cause of at least two plane crashes. Whenever this happens, there’s always associated loss of life and extreme property damage.

Lithium Battery Fires and Thermal Runaway

The most common hazard associated with lithium batteries is fire. This is often caused by internal short circuits but can also be traced to other sources. A fire could be the result of a poorly manufactured battery, but it could also come from any type of mechanical damage (such as dropping or crushing a battery).

When a battery is faulty, it can lead to a hazard cycle known as “thermal runaway.” If a battery begins to overheat beyond what can be vented off, it will increase the temperature inside the cell. This rise in temperature results in increased current, which then causes an increaCellPhone_Fire.jpgse in chemical reaction rate. As the chemical reaction rate increases, more heat is produced, which starts the cycle all over again. Just think of this like a snowball effect that continues to get bigger and bigger.

Not before long, the increase in temperature and pressure becomes too much for the cell, and the battery can “explode” and vent its contents. This can then lead to a chain reaction where nearby cells or batteries go into thermal runaway as well. If there is a large number of batteries being stored together, you could have an entire pallet or storage area with batteries going into thermal runaway.

What starts as something small can avalanche into a serious situation.

Worker Safety With Lithium Batteries

Most workers will not think much about the dangers of lithium batteries, but there are some simple safety measures employees can take.

For instance:
  • Protect batteries from mechanical damage, such as crushing, puncturing, and disassembly.
  • Avoid rough handling that could lead to dropping the battery and causing damage.
  • Avoid subjecting batteries to excessive shock and vibration.
  • Work areas should be clear of conductive surfaces and items (e.g., made of metal).
  • Use the correct chargers when charging batteries.
  • Do not place batteries into water or fire (as should be obvious).
  • Treat all dropped batteries as “hot.” It may not be apparent from the start that a battery has gone into thermal runaway, so monitor the batteries over a few hours after they are dropped.
As with anything hazardous, employees should be cautious when working with lithium batteries.

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Train online anytime and benefit from exercises and interactive learning tools that help you retain what you learn. Build in-depth expertise on how to class, package, mark, label, loading, unload, and document lithium battery ground, air, and vessel shipments.
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Tags: battery, hazmat shipping, lithium batteries, osha, safety, workplace safety,

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