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How Lithium Batteries Become a Workplace Hazard

Posted on 7/7/2015 by Lee Ann Coniglione

Experts predict a $22 billion market for lithium batteries in 2016. The rising popularity of these batteries makes it crucial that manufacturers, shippers, and consumers who handle and use lithium-battery-powered devices know the safety hazards these products pose. By following some basic handling and storage guidelines, everyone who comes in contact with lithium batteries can avoid short circuits, fires, and injuries.

Advantages of Lithium Batteries

Lithium battery technology has come a long way in the 100+ years since the first lithium metal battery pack was engineered. Today, lithium batteries are well suited for a variety of electronic applications because of their small size, their light weight, and their energy storage capacity.

A battery's ability to store energy is called "energy density." Lithium batteries are considered high-energy density batteries, which means they have a high energy storage capacity. Their longevity directly impacts the usefulness of our devices.

Lithium-ion vs. Lithium Metal Batteries

Presently, the two most popular types of lithium batteries are lithium-ion and lithium metal batteries. While both have their pros and cons, lithium-ion batteries are the preferred choice in many types of electronics. Unlike their lithium metal counterparts, lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable. In addition, lithium-ion batteries typically don't experience a decline in their ability to hold a charge, making them ideal for powering things like cell phones, laptops, tablets, and electric vehicles.

Lithium metal batteries continue to remain viable in the battery world because of one major advantage: they provide long-term power to things like medical implants (e.g., pacemakers), wrist watches, and even key fobs. So, as you can see, these two different types of lithium batteries have found their niche in certain sectors of the electronics market. It all depends on their application.

Drawbacks of Lithium Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries have a limited shelf life. From the time of manufacture, they start to degrade (whether or not they are being used in a device). Lithium batteries are also susceptible to high temperatures and should be kept in a climate-controlled environment and out of direct sunlight. Lithium batteries are also more expensive than some competing products. The most significant drawback of lithium batteries, though, is their unique fire hazards.

Although lithium battery fires and explosions are relatively uncommon, when such an event does occur, it has the potential to be serious. You may recall recent news stories involving laptops or cell phones that burst into flames. In most cases like this, a faulty or damaged lithium battery is to blame. Lithium batteries may also be damaged as a result of mechanical, electrical, or thermal mishaps. In some cases, the battery defect may originate with the battery manufacturer.

Lithium Battery Short Circuits and Thermal Runaway

The risk of a lithium-battery-related event is low—occurring only in about two or three battery packs per million. However, when an event does occur, it is likely to involve fire, venting of gases, flying metal shrapnel, harmful smoke, and even an explosion.

A battery can catch fire due to an internal short circuit. When a short circuit occurs, it causes overheating of the cells within a battery, which can ultimately lead to a condition known as "thermal runaway." Thermal runaway is a cycle of events that begins with an increase in temperature inside a cell. The rise in temperature results in increased current, which in turn accelerates the cell's chemical reaction rate. As the chemical reaction rate increases, more heat is produced, again causing an increase in temperature. And the cycle continues, typically only ending when the battery explodes or erupts into flames.

What's particularly dangerous about thermal runaway is that is doesn't typically confine itself to just one cell. The buildup of pressure and temperature within a cell can become too much for the cell to contain, causing it to explode and vent its contents. This can lead to neighboring cells going into thermal runaway as well.

Putting Out a Lithium Battery FireLithium batteries are prone to short circuits and fires

Lithium fires are very unique in that they are not typically extinguished in the same manner as ordinary combustible fires. Depending on the type of battery, non-traditional extinguishing agents, such as halotron or copper powder, may be needed. A lithium metal fire is treated differently from a lithium-ion fire in that each requires different firefighting agents. Whatever the situation may be, only trained responders are equipped to handle a large-scale lithium battery fire, which is likely to involve molten metal, shrapnel, and toxic smoke.

Preventing Lithium Battery Fires and Incidents

A few simple safeguards can help protect the batteries in your electronic devices. For consumers, it's crucial to avoid mechanical damage to the battery as a result of crushing, puncturing, dropping, or excessive vibration or shock. In addition, the following guidelines are applicable to workplace environments where lithium batteries are stored:
  • Keep batteries in their original packaging;
  • Store in areas with adequate ventilation;
  • Avoid non-uniform stacking of boxes containing batteries, which could lead to tipping; and
  • Place larger, heavier boxes on bottom of a stack to avoid crushing.
Remember, you want to avoid subjecting the batteries to any kind of damage that could lead to an internal short, overheating, or leaking. If you discover a leaking battery, you have to make sure you are adequately protected from the battery's electrolyte, which can cause burns on the skin. If a battery spill occurs in the workplace, you have to be trained and authorized by your employer to clean up the spill.

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 covers the US DOT's 49 CFR 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.

Tags: DOT, hazmat shipping, lithium batteries, materials handling, osha

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