Lithium-ion batteries pose a significant fire risk for businesses. Adrian Simmonds, practice leader - property risk solutions at QBE Insurance, shares a ten-point checklist to ensure your business is protected

Lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries are a well-known fire hazard in most areas of modern life. Risks exist from the smallest of mobile phones to the largest energy storage batteries.

All Li-Ion batteries pose a serious safety risk for people and property alike, if not stored, maintained, and recycled/disposed of properly.

Lithium Ion

Within the wide range of Li-Ion uses, fires involving an e-bike or e-scooter are the fastest-growing risk for fires.

A missed threat on the horizon

While the hazards associated with Li-Ion batteries – including those in e-scooters – are becoming more widely recognised by the public, firefighters, and the authorities, there is one key question missing from the dialogue: How do we manage risk around battery returns?

Li-Ion fires result from batteries being tipped into an irreversible overheating process called thermal runaway, most often caused by impact damage, over-charging, or over-heating.

But for batteries that don’t have ‘one careful owner’ or which may not be used / charged in a consistent or safe manner, how can the people and premises handling those units approach the risk of thermal runaway and fire?

There are a significant number of guidance articles, webinars, and presentations centred around the safe handling and charging of devices such as e-scooters and e-bikes, and a few even talk about the health hazards of the toxic gases and chemicals Li-Ion batteries can release. But very few also consider the issue of ‘returns’, and this is something we should be talking about.

“Returns in a commercial and industrial setting are much more of a hazard than new and unused batteries.”

It is clear some major fire incidents have started in a used device/equipment that has been returned to a retail store, a repair and refurbishment workshop, or a manufacturer accepting end-of-life WEEE (Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment) for re-purposing or recycling.

In fact, it has been known for some time that used (and abused) Li-Ion batteries are much more at risk of thermal runaway than new and unused batteries.

The very act of using a Li-Ion battery device exposes the batteries to significant shaking, impact shock, and the potential for being connected to poor quality or faulty chargers, which can trigger internal faults that lead to thermal runaway.

It is not surprising, therefore, that ‘returns’ in a commercial and industrial setting are much more of a hazard than new and unused batteries.

The way forward

Commercial enterprises accepting returns will have to mitigate risk in several stages. The first of these may include educating their customer users about the risks to promote responsible use.

We would also recommend a set standard of handling and processes within physical business premises to ensure safety. In addition, knowledgeable management of both the returns process and returns premises will help keep oversight of the risk landscape.

So, for risk managers specifically, they should consider making sure their clients or those managing the batteries are following our 10-point guidance plan, that they have the right control measures in place for the places where the batteries are being handled and stored, and have the training to respond appropriately.

Risk managers can look into whether ‘returns’ and the associated hazards already form part of a daily risk assessment. If they do, ‘returns’ should be managed as if every battery could be faulty and go into thermal runaway.

Li-Ion incidents are unpredictable across all sectors and caution is required wherever batteries are used, re-used and recycled.

QBE’s 10-point checklist for managing Li-Ion battery ‘returns’

  1. All ‘returns’ should be delivered to an external yard area or a low-value building 15m+ from the main buildings OR delivered to a 1-hour fire-rated container/building 6m+ clear.
  2. ‘Returns’ should not be brought inside main buildings for cleaning, testing, or refurbishment until the workshop is ready to accept them.
  3. ‘Returns’ brought into main buildings for inspection and testing should not be left unsupervised at any time of the day.
  4. ‘Returns’ should not be left inside the building out of hours or when the work area is unsupervised such as at breaks, overnight, and weekends.
  5. Returned batteries should be checked with handheld thermal cameras for signs of over-heating on receipt and before being brought into main buildings for inspection and testing.
  6. ‘Returns’ should not be discharged or charged until all electrical tests have been completed and this should be done for the first time ONLY during supervised work periods.
  7. For small units, removed batteries should be placed in a metal-lidded box positioned in a safe space inside the work area or outside the building, not in the main store, warehouse, or factory.
  8. The small battery ‘returns’ box can contain sand or vermiculite as a means of limiting the immediate effects of a returned battery going into thermal runaway.
  9. The contents of this small battery ‘returns’ box should be removed from the main building at least every 4 hours and preferably every 2 hours, whether or not the box is full. It is imperative that ‘returns’ are not left in the main building for too long when they might be faulty.
  10. Batteries extracted from large units such as vehicles and mobile plants should be removed from the main buildings immediately and stored in the open 15m+ from the main buildings OR stored inside a 1-hour fire-rated container/building 6m+ clear.