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Outside In: The Operational Risks of Lithium-Ion Batteries Explained

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Learn about the risks associated with lithium-ion battery use and how your operations could be impacted if those risks aren’t managed responsibly. 

You might have already read that lithium-ion airline incidents are soaring. For obvious reasons, these types of incidents capture public interest, but the truth is that, like many emerging technologies, lithium-ion batteries are a potential hazard wherever they’re used. 

Lithium-ion batteries have quickly become a popular choice for businesses due to their high energy density, long lifespan, and lightweight design. However, there are significant operational risks associated with these batteries that businesses should be aware of.

When their environment is your factory, site, or pharmaceutical warehouse, it’s important that you understand the risks involved so that you plan to minimise and protect against them. A health and safety incident could seriously injure your colleagues. It could also have significant repercussions for your ability to operate at full capacity going forwards.

So what are the hazards involved and how can you counter them? Read on to find out more.

Click to download your copy of our four-step risk assessment checklist for lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries are fire hazards

It’s important to stress that lithium-ion batteries are widely considered safe to use. They are generally approved for operation and many organisations from many industries around the world are leveraging lithium-ion technology to enable more sustainable business practices.

The caveat is that they must be handled responsibly. Any damage to the battery can lead to a technical fault, which can quickly become a health and safety incident. Specifically, lithium-ion batteries are prone to overheating and catching fire when compromised. 

Why do lithium-ion batteries catch fire?

Damage to the battery can cause the energy stored within to be released in an uncontrolled way. This risk is heightened in applications where the battery is subjected to high temperatures, vibration, or mechanical stress. When this happens, the heat emitted will exceed the melting point of the separator and a chain reaction kickstarts. 

This is known as “thermal runaway” and it effectively causes the battery to explode. Importantly, because the source of the reaction is the battery core, it’s protected by the battery housing, making it very difficult to reach with an extinguishing agent (e.g. water). 

Additionally, lithium-ion batteries are vulnerable to damage from overcharging, which can cause the battery to potentially rupture.

Related read: 5 Ways Your Lithium-Ion Battery Can Be Damaged

The bigger the battery, the bigger the blaze

Lithium-ion battery fires spread quickly and are notoriously difficult to control. The larger the battery, the greater the amount of power that is unleashed and the more dangerous the fire.

Fires caused by large batteries used, for example to power an electric vehicle, are incredibly high risk and can present a significant challenge for the emergency services. In many cases, the best the fire services will be able to do is to contain the fire to a localised area.

When that area is your production, you begin to see how devastating these incidents can be commercially, as well as to the health and safety of your people. Businesses that rely on lithium-ion batteries should take precautions to minimise these risks, such as implementing proper charging protocols, monitoring battery temperature, and using protective cases or enclosures.

‘Outside in’ protection

Because of the risks associated with lithium-ion battery use and the way in which external factors can trigger thermal runaway, specialist storage solutions are required not just to protect people and premises from the battery but the other way around, too.

This is known as “outside in” protection and when you see it, it’s a good indicator that the storage solution you’re researching has been designed and developed by a manufacturer that understands the unique risks these batteries pose — and their vulnerabilities, too.

Assess your operational risks

Large or small, an incident of this kind will have dramatic consequences for your operations.

  • Production will be immediately halted.
  • Your people will need to be evacuated.
  • In the event that anyone comes to harm, they will need time off to recover.
  • Raw materials, stock, machinery, and other equipment might be damaged or lost.
  • Investigations will likely need to be carried out once the site is secured.

The advances in technology unlocked by lithium-ion batteries are many and varied. Used safely and responsibly, they can power innovative new products, processes, and solutions. 

Key to this is a clearly defined process for how the batteries are handled, stored, charged, and transported, underpinned by routine risk assessments to ensure protocol is being followed. If you’re not sure where to start with this, you can download a copy of our lithium-ion risk assessment checklist below or get in touch for further support.

Risk and reward have always walked a fine line. Keep your production on the right side with a responsible risk assessment process that protects your people and your operations.

To download your copy of our four-step risk assessment checklist for lithium-ion batteries, click here.