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E-scooters and lithium batteries: the new fire risk for the workplace?

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18 February, the date chosen to play host to National Battery Day, is a particularly important one for the history of the battery. The day marks the birth of the father of battery science, Alessandro Volta, credited as the creator of the Voltaic Pile, an early form of what we know today as the electric battery.


Over the past six months batteries have regularly made the headlines, with tragic stories of fires and explosions, resulting in injury and loss of life. Each could be traced back to the charging of lithium-ion (Li-ion) e-scooters and e-bikes. This begins to underscore the problems posed by these new forms of transport.

To coincide with National Battery Day 2024, the British Safety Council has published an introductory guide for employers on managing the risks from Li-ion batteries, recognising the challenges posed by the storage and charging of lithium-powered e-bikes and e-scooters in the workplace.

The charging of Lithium-ion e-scooters and e-bikes has caused fires that have hit the headlines in the last six months. Photograph: iStock/MixMedia. 

Since 2020, 10 people in the UK have died from fires linked to Li-ion batteries, and 190 people have been injured. In 2023, firefighters in London fought more than 87 e-bike and 29 e-scooter blazes, a record for the nation’s capital. 

As these new means of travel begin to enter our daily work orbit, they present new hazards for Health and Safety practitioners to assess and manage. Businesses in towns and cities are increasingly finding their employees using these modes of transport to get to and from work. In doing this, they also look to store and recharge them during the working day.  

The stories we hear illustrate just how dangerous a fire involving lithium can be to human life. The sheer speed with which a battery fire can grow in intensity creates utter devastation to people and property. Although most instances have, so far, been in people’s homes, the challenges these batteries present in the workplace must be considered and responded to by employers as a matter of priority. 

Phil Pinnington, head of audit and consultancy, British Safety Council.

Recently, I’ve been involved in conversations with an employer in the City of London, where the safe use and, perhaps more importantly, the safe storage of these e-bikes and e-scooters has created concerns. While they have a dedicated storage space for bikes and scooters, employees were charging batteries at their desks. 

When this issue was first highlighted the company immediately banned the charging on the office floor but faced a dilemma. It is easy to ban something but that doesn’t always mean that employees will stop doing it, so a more effective solution was needed. 

The answer they arrived at was to provide designated plug points in the cycle store for battery charging. These points have their own isolation system, heat detectors fitted no more than 2 metres above the ground, and CCTV cameras are trained on the area. Should any fire start, the building will quickly get notified and security can confirm exactly the scale of the fire.

Legally speaking, the Fire Reform Order of 2005 introduced the requirement for occupiers to identify and manage potential fire risk. Organisations should, within their electrical policies and procedures, consider guidance or setting standards where lithium batteries may be used – and not just for e-bikes and e-scooters. Lithium is being used to power hand-held tools, electric cars and even small electrical items. 

The example laid out above is just one response to a varied and developing problem but presents a practical and pragmatic response for employers and site managers to consider. 

In British Safety Council’s ‘Introductory Guide’ to Li-ion batteries in the workplace you’ll find a series of tips from assessing the risks and putting control measures in place to the solutions being used around the world. You can find the full guide here.

Charging

  • The manufacturer-approved charger for the product must be used, and if you spot any signs of wear and tear or damage, the user must buy an official replacement charger for the product from a reputable seller.
  • The e-bike, e-scooter or any hand-held equipment batteries must not be charged or stored near combustible or flammable materials.
  • The user must ensure the battery does not overcharge – check the manufacturer’s instructions for charge times.
  • Users charging must not overload socket outlets or use inappropriate extension leads (use un-coiled extensions and ensure the lead is suitably rated for what you are plugging into it).

Storage 

Building owners or occupiers should designate suitable storage and the following points must be considered: 

  • There should be no storing or charging of e-bikes and e-scooters on escape routes or in communal areas of a multi-occupied building. If there’s a fire, it can affect people’s ability to escape.
  • The site Responsible Person should consider the risks posed by e-bikes and e-scooters where they are charged or left in common areas such as means of escape, bike stores and mobility scooter charging rooms. They may wish to offer advice to employees on the safe use, storage and charging of these products.
  • If e-bikes and e-scooters are a recognised risk in the building then the site fire risk assessment should include reference to this. The designated storage location should also be made clear on the site fire plan.

Phil Pinnington is head of audit and consultancy at British Safety Council.

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