Opinion

Batteries – an opportunity, but what’s the safety risk?

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As global economies look to achieve their net zero targets, there is an increased focus on the development of non-fossil fuel alternative energy sources, such as battery power. The demand for batteries over the next 20 years is predicted to increase twentyfold. This presents numerous opportunities for those in the battery production supply chain who will need to gear up to meet this increased demand. However, despite the glow of opportunity, it is important that the safety risks posed by batteries are effectively managed.


Battery power has been around for a long time. The risks inherent in the production, storage, use and disposal of batteries are not new. However, the way we use batteries is rapidly evolving, which brings these risks into sharp focus. Once reserved for use in small household items such as clocks and toys, battery power now increasingly dominates the world of personal and commercial transport.

Stationary battery storage has also undergone a surge in popularity – from large scale storage systems designed to supplement power to national electricity grids to smaller scale local domestic systems. Global demand for batteries has seen exponential growth, particularly lithium-ion (‘Li-ion’) batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries account for the majority of batteries used in consumer electronics and electric vehicles. Photograph: iStock/MixMedia

Along with the increased demand, media reporting of spontaneous explosions is on the rise, accompanied by scare stories that some insurers are reconsidering their appetite for electric vehicle insurance. The recent loss of a car-carrier vessel off the Azores is reported to have prompted many marine insurers to decline cover for vehicles being transported on ships and has forced up premiums for those carrying Li-ion batteries. The ship, which was thought to be carrying nearly 4,000 cars, including electric models, caught fire and burned for several days, with the fire reportedly fuelled by the presence of Li-ion batteries in the vehicles. The ship eventually sank while a salvage crew was attempting to tow it into port.

Given the increase in demand for and accompanying publicity around batteries, it is important to ensure that potential safety issues are not seen as a handbrake on their usage and development. After considering some of the most common concerns surrounding the use of batteries, it is clear that much of the problem relates to matters of messaging and education, rather than some new or emerging danger. After all, industries that manufacture, use, maintain and dispose of batteries – and the equipment powered by them – are well used to safely managing high-risk substances throughout their lifecycle, keeping workers and others safe, and maintaining the confidence of both the public and investors. There is already a framework of regulation in place, and many commentators argue that the scope and efficacy of the existing laws should be carefully considered before any further regulation is imposed.

So, what are the risks?

Li-ion batteries account for the majority of batteries currently used in portable consumer electronics and electric vehicles. They can store a huge amount of energy and are generally safe when operated correctly. However, they contain substances which become unstable, and exposure to these substances can be harmful. This vulnerability can be exposed by electrical or mechanical abuse. A process known as ‘thermal runaway’ can occur where there is increased heat within the battery system which cannot be offset. This process can lead to a serious fire or explosion, particularly in cases where a highly toxic vapour cloud has been released.

The London Fire Brigade has described fires involving Li-ion batteries as “the fastest growing fire risk in London”. Fire services in the UK recorded 239 fires linked to electric vehicles in the period 2022/23, which is an 83 per cent increase from the 130 recorded in the previous year. Clearly, when these fires break out in communal or enclosed areas, or near to fire escapes, in residential or business premises, they present a serious risk to life. 

Photograph: iStock/KanaWatTH

In January 2022, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) issued guidance on the risks associated with e-bikes and e-scooters. This included advice on charging, storage, purchasing, damage and disposal. Much of this advice is universally relevant for the safe usage, storage and disposal of Li-ion batteries.

On charging, the advice states that only manufacturer-approved chargers should be used and that batteries should not be overcharged. Batteries should be sourced only from reputable suppliers and should be stored safely. Careful consideration should be given to mitigating the risks of storage in communal or enclosed areas, or near to escape routes.

Battery damage and disposal can pose a significant risk. Where the battery is damaged, it can overheat and catch fire without warning. Batteries should be checked regularly for any signs of damage and any damaged batteries should not be used. The incorrect disposal of batteries – for example, in household waste – can lead to batteries being punctured or crushed. This is known to have caused fires in bin lorries and at waste recycling centres, endangering the safety of workers and others.

Legal regime

The UK already has legislation in place dealing with fire and safety risks such as those posed by batteries. For example, the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (‘the 1974 Act’) requires employers to ensure the safety of their workers and others in so far as is reasonably practicable.

Responsible and Accountable persons under the Building Safety regime also have fire safety responsibilities, and those responsibilities are equally as relevant to the risks inherent in batteries as they are to any other fire risks. Therefore, battery risks should be considered as part of the risk assessment process and suitable control measures must be put in place. The 1974 Act has more than stood the test of time; its mode of application may have required adaptation to changing environments, but its basic tenets can still provide the solid foundation needed to ensure the safety 

The same can be said for many of the regulations that stem from the 1974 Act. Although Li-ion batteries are outside the scope of the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 2015, the government confirmed in 2021 that the Health and Safety Executive believed the current regulatory framework was sufficient and suitably robust in relation to Li-ion batteries and battery energy storage systems.

Liam Jagger is an associate solicitor at Pinsent Masons. Photograph: Pinsent Masons

The government also stated that: “Of particular relevance are the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations which set minimum requirements for the protection of workers and others from fire and explosion risks; the Electricity at Work Regulations which require precautions to be taken against the risk of death or personal injury from electricity in work activities; and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations which require risks to be assessed and appropriately managed.

“In addition, for large scale battery storage, there are statutory requirements to notify the Fire and Rescue Service to inform their emergency response planning.”

The Waste Batteries and Accumulators Regulations 2009 contain specific rules for the collection, treatment, recycling and disposal of batteries, making it compulsory for producers to take back and recycle automotive and industrial batteries. They also set up a system of producer responsibility for the separate collection, treatment and recycling of waste portable batteries. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently considering whether changes are needed to current battery regulations as a result of the increasing number of waste electric vehicle batteries. A UK Battery Taskforce has also been set up, which will help inform the new UK Battery Strategy, and it held its first meeting at the beginning of October 2023.

A call for evidence on the UK Battery Strategy closed at the end of September and a full UK Battery Strategy is expected in the coming months.

Is more regulation needed?

Since the UK left the European Union, the government has committed to the removal of superfluous regulation without compromising safety standards. While new regulation may be required to meet emergent risks, where risks are not new (such as from batteries), there is an argument that existing legislation could be adapted if possible (and only if necessary). It may be possible to mitigate many of the risks highlighted in this article through better education and training of those involved in the life cycle of batteries, rather than by more legislation. As matters evolve, new or amended legislation may be required but this should not be the default position.

Liam Jagger is an associate solicitor at Pinsent Masons LLP. 
[email protected]

NFCC guidance – E-bikes and e-scooters: fire safety guidance.

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