Lithium battery safety in the age of e-vehicles

A guide for employers on lithium battery safety in the age of electric vehicles - learn UK best practices, regulatory guidelines and fire prevention.

author

James Rowland

Commercial Director James leads Account Management, Sales and Marketing at Neathouse Partners.

Date

12 June 2024

Updated

17 July 2024
5 min read
featured
Lithium battery safety in the age of e-vehicles
10:33

As electric vehicles (EVs) become more popular, the safety of lithium batteries used to power them is a growing concern. These batteries are essential for the performance and efficiency of EVs, but they also come with risks, and have a great potential to start fires.

For businesses using EVs (offering them to staff as company cars, for instance), and for employees relying on them for daily commutes, understanding how to safely handle, store and maintain lithium batteries is crucial.

This article explores the key aspects of lithium battery safety in the age of e-vehicles. We'll look at common safety practices, regulatory guidelines, and what to do in case of a fire. By staying informed, businesses can protect their employees and assets, ensuring a safer transition to electric transport options.


Common safety practices for lithium batteries


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Here are some important points employers should be aware of when it comes to preventing fires and handling lithium batteries safely.

  • Store lithium batteries in a cool, dry place away from flammable materials.
  • Ensure batteries are stored at a recommended state of charge (around 50%).
  • Make sure that employees who have company EVs are trained in the importance of avoiding physical damage to batteries, and to regularly inspect batteries for signs of wear, damage, or swelling.
  • Ensure that there are appropriate fire extinguishers installed on your premises (Class D).
  • Implement protocols for dealing with battery fires, including evacuation plans, and install sprinkler systems in company car parks that have EVs parked in them (where possible).
  • Partner with certified recycling facilities for the safe disposal of old or damaged EV lithium batteries.

 

Statistics on EVs and lithium battery safety


In a study carried out by CE Safety during 2022/23, figures suggest there has been an alarming rise in the number of car battery fires. Based on Freedom of Information requests to fire and rescue services, a total of 390 battery fires related to EVs were reported. Greater London was the most affected area for EV fires, with 219 battery fires, while Lancashire reported 16 and Merseyside 14.

Data collected by business insurer QBE revealed that firefighters attended 46% more lithium-ion battery fires in 2023 compared to 2022. EV batteries were responsible for almost three fires every day in 2023. Nearly a third involved e-bikes, while e-scooter fires rose by 7%.

 According to Honeywell Safety, 239 EV fires were recorded in the UK from July 2022 to June 2023.  


Risks linked to electric vehicles (EVs)


EV being charged indoors


The safety of charging electric vehicles (EVs) in underground car parks is a concern for many employers.
 
It's been suggested that the UK should follow some European countries in banning EV charging in sub-basement car parks. Employers renting office space with underground car parks may also find that the level of risk in allowing vehicle charging in this way also increases their insurance liabilities.
 
Property insurers are worried about high-voltage charge points being installed near buildings and infrastructure, so companies need to consider this if they're thinking of offering charging stations for workers to charge their EVs. If an insurer isn't happy about the location of charging points, they may insist they are changed, which could prove expensive to a premises owner, as they might not be able to get insurance unless they comply.

Where possible, it's a good idea to avoid installing charging points in underground car parks when possible. Instead, place them in open areas, but not near escape routes or locations that could prevent safe evacuation of a building. Workplace EV charging points should also be positioned away from assembly points or flammable storage areas.


I want to offer EV charging stations to staff: what should I do?


As a first step, inform your insurers of your intention to install charging points and undertake a comprehensive fire risk assessment. Place charging points outside whenever possible, avoiding canopies or enclosed areas that are close to office premises. For multi-storey car parks, install charging points on an open-air roof. Charging points should be at least 15 metres away from hazardous areas. The storage and charging of electric bikes close to workplaces and residential buildings should also be considered should staff use this method to get to work.

Ensure the designated charging area provides enough space for staff to park their vehicles and connect safely. Provide employees with fire safety training on the safe use of EV chargers, and be sure that the electrical infrastructure can support the charging points. The circuit should be dedicated to the chargers, and not used for other purposes.

 

How does an employer mitigate the risks of lithium-ion battery fires?

To prevent battery fires, here are some key containment measures that employers can take. Staff using EVs to either commute to or travel around for work should be aware of the following:


Preventive measures

  • Handle lithium-ion EV batteries with care to prevent damage that could lead to fire risks.
  • Always use the manufacturer-recommended charging equipment for your EV. If replacement is needed, opt for genuine products from trusted suppliers.
  • Avoid exposing lithium-ion EV batteries to extreme temperatures during storage, use, or charging.
  • Don't leave an EV continuously charging after the cycle is complete, and maintain a charging range of 20% to 80%.
  • Charge an EV in well-ventilated areas, and avoid charging under flammable materials.

Containment Measures:

  • Stop charging and discontinue use of the EV if you notice any abnormal rise in temperature during charging.
  • If an EV battery overheats, move the vehicle away from flammable materials and park it on a non-combustible surface. If possible, move the vehicle outdoors.
  • Note that moving a vehicle with a battery in thermal runaway can cause re-ignition for several hours after the initial incident. If it ignites, use a fire blanket that's designed for EV batteries, to stop the fire from spreading and to contain the situation.


UK regulatory guidelines and legislation for employers using electric vehicles (EVs)


Employers should be aware of the following legislation associated with EVs and fire safety.

Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

Employers are required to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of employees at work. This includes the safe use and handling of lithium batteries.

 

The Electricity at Work Regulations 1989

These regulations mandate safe electrical systems in the workplace, including those involving lithium batteries and EVs.

 

Waste Batteries and Accumulators Regulations 2009

This regulation requires proper disposal and recycling of batteries. Employers must ensure batteries are collected separately and sent to appropriate recycling facilities.

 

The Carriage of Dangerous Goods and Use of Transportable Pressure Equipment Regulations 2009

This law requires the safe transportation of dangerous goods, including lithium batteries. Employers must comply with packaging, labelling, and documentation standards.

 

Battery Directive (2006/66/EC)

This directive sets standards for the collection, recycling, and disposal of batteries. Employers must adhere to these standards to protect the environment and avoid hazardous waste.


What type of fire extinguisher should an employer provide for lithium-ion batteries?


For lithium-ion battery-related fires, an employer should generally provide Class D fire extinguishers, as they're intended for metal fires, including lithium. However, lithium-ion batteries can often require more specialised extinguishers containing agents such as Lith-X, which is a mixture of graphite and other materials. This type of extinguisher is particularly effective in smothering lithium fires.

Water mist extinguishers can be useful in cooling and controlling lithium-ion battery fires by producing a fine mist that reduces temperature, without causing electrical conduction. In some cases, clean agent extinguishers like Halotron or FM-200 may also be appropriate, especially in environments with sensitive electronics.

Employees must be properly trained in the use of these extinguishers and in handling lithium-ion battery fires, given their intensity and potential for combustion. For installations such as EV charging points in a contained car park, it's good to have specialised fire suppression systems in place that are designed for temperature monitoring and automatic suppression should a fire occur.


Should employers carry out risk assessments for EVs on their premises?


While there's no legislation to force employers into doing this, it's good practice to undertake a risk assessment, and can also help to appease insurance companies. EVs come with their own set of risks that need to be carefully managed to ensure the safety of employees, visitors, and business premises.

A comprehensive risk assessment should include evaluating the potential hazards associated with the safety of charging stations, ensuring they are installed correctly, maintained regularly and used safely to prevent electrical hazards. The risk assessment should also take into account correct procedures for handling and storing EVs, especially in enclosed spaces such as parking garages. Proper ventilation and emergency response plans should be in place to address potential incidents. Regular reviews and updates of the risk assessment are also a good idea to help employers adapt to new technologies and changing conditions.


Book a fire risk assessment with us

We help all kinds of businesses to overcome fire safety challenges and mitigate risks. Our professionals at Neathouse Partners can advise on fire hazards and persons at risk, with detailed recordings and explanations of findings. Get in touch to see how we can support your business.

Speak to us by calling 0333 041 1094 today or use our contact form.

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