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Assessing lithium battery risks

What can be done to make facilities safe when lithium batteries are present?


Responding is Mandy Marxen, commercial marketing manager, U.S. Chemical Storage, Wilkesboro, NC.

Power tools, material handling equipment, computer hardware, drones, robots, communication devices.

When you start to add up the number of rechargeable devices at your facility, you may be surprised. Fire risk assessments aren’t uncommon for most workplaces, but many haven’t included lithium batteries as a fire risk. Although the risk of a fire occurrence is low, the damage to life and property is often high.

An updated lithium battery risk assessment should:
Educate. Teach the dangers and unique risks of lithium batteries and what makes lithium-battery fires unique. Teach employees the recommended charging requirements and show them the designated chargers and cords to use.
Evaluate. Record all the lithium batteries at your facility. Note how many batteries need to be charged at any given time for optimal work performance. Evaluate where the batteries are used versus where they need to be stored or charged.
Isolate. Pay attention to how close lithium-ion batteries are to people and combustible materials. Remember: Violent explosions are a part of the lithium battery thermal runaway process, so where you isolate the batteries overnight or while unattended is vital.
Communicate. Do you have processes in place to report when a battery is suspect? Swelling, high heat, water damage, freezing, incompatible chargers and other variables should be communicated to a designated person and noted in a standard operating procedure. Make sure employees are comfortable reporting when a battery is dropped without negative repercussions.

Secondly, some major codes were updated in 2024. Specifically, progress has been made on two critical safety codes to address the storage of lithium-ion batteries.

NFPA 855: Storage of Lithium Metal or Lithium-Ion Batteries 2023 edition provides comprehensive requirements for storage facilities – both inside and out – for lithium batteries. Among the requirements:

  • Two-hour minimum fire-rated design
  • Smoke/heat detectors, climate control and ventilation
  • Explosion protection options
  • Automatic water sprinkler systems
  • Construction placement and distances

National Fire Code NFC/ICC Section 320 is a widely adopted fire code that incorporates fire safety regulations for various occupancies, including storage facilities. Sections within the NFC address:

  • Requirement of a fire safety plan, in accordance with Section 404
  • Storage specs with locations and distances
  • Fire protection systems for fire, smoke and sprinklers
  • Explosion control options

These codes are similar, and your local authority may use one or both. Following these codes can significantly reduce the risk of fire incidents during lithium-ion battery storage. Although implementing these codes in existing facilities is possible, it can often be expensive and time-consuming. This is one of the reasons both codes allow for prefabricated portable structures.

As you create your risk assessment, remember these codes for the future as you grow, move or update your facilities. These codes only get stronger with every update as more lithium-battery fire events occur. You’re charged with keeping your facility’s lithium battery inventory safe.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be considered a National Safety Council endorsement.

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