Lithium-Ion Batteries: Making Good Choices

Mass produced electric vehicles (EV) with lithium-ion (Li-ion) technology are relatively new to the U.S. commercial and private vehicle market.  In addition, Li-ion rechargeable batteries are now found in mobile phones, laptops, marine craft, power tools, industrial robots, drones, medical devices, production equipment, tablets, solar energy storage, electric bikes, and many more battery powered devices. Li-ion batteries have become more widespread for many applications because they are designed to be recharged. Li-ion batteries are known for high-capacity power storage and consistent performance, which makes Li-on batteries a popular choice for a myriad of industrial and workplace applications.

The pervasive use of Li-ion battery powered devices presents a growing hazardous waste stream for many organizations which must be tracked, handled, treated, and or disposed of in such a way as to mitigate harm to humans and the environment. Current estimates are that as little as 5% of all Li-ion batteries, including those from consumer electronics, are recycled with significant portions landfilled. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, approximately 100,000 metric tons of EV Li-ion batteries are currently recycled which represents 10% of current Li-ion batteries sold annually in EVs. To get ahead of issues with waste stream handling of end-of-life Li-ion batteries, companies should begin with accounting for the quantities and types of batteries in use at their organizations and consider the following:

  • Have a tracking system for Li-ion (and other) batteries in use within the company.
  • Train employees in the specifics Li-on battery handling and disposal guidelines for the company.
  • Assign qualified workers to receive and document the cradle-to-grave tracking of Li-ion batteries.
  • Become knowledgeable of the applicable local, state, and federal rules for battery handling and disposal. 

Li-ion batteries generally qualify as “hazardous waste” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) at end of life due to their ignitability and reactivity characteristics. This characterization of spent Li-ion batteries can have a major impact on organizations that use and dispose of Li-ion batteries, as well as disposal, recycling, and reclamation companies involved in battery end-of-life management activities, including storage and recycling.

Li-ion batteries generated in households and household-like areas are not considered RCRA waste under the household hazardous waste exemption. Spent batteries generated at places like dealerships, auto shops, scrap yards, or similar types of facilities, however, are not exempted from the regulations. As an example, an EV battery being changed at home by its owner would not be subject to the RCRA regulations, but EV batteries removed at dealerships or auto shops would be subject to them. Consumers, therefore, likely will not have any additional responsibilities under EPA’s guidance, but they may have additional costs to pay.

Another reason to keep track of your organization’s Li-ion battery use is the potential for fires or explosions. Damaged or unstable batteries and improper charging, storage or disposal can cause the batteries to overheat, leading to an explosive, aggressive fire that spreads rapidly, can reignite and is challenging to extinguish. Li-ion battery cells are known to explode and quickly spread to other battery cells, and they may continue to generate heat even when there is no visible sign of fire. Fires may occur if the Li-ion battery has: 

  • Damage from impacts. 
  • Aged and deteriorated in quality such that charging is not effective. 
  • Manufacturing flaws that affect daily beneficial use and safety.
  • Been charged or stored in extreme cold or heat. 
  • Been overcharged.

Any organization that has technology, vehicles, or other equipment that relies on Li-ion batteries, how to safely store and charge these batteries must be a consideration. When storing and charging Li-ion batteries it is imperative to ensure that they are never overcharged, kept away from extreme temperatures, and are protected by barriers or cabinets from impact damage. Li-ion batteries should only charge with a battery charger that meets current safety regulatory standards.

Workplace injuries from lithium battery defects or damage can occur and should be accounted for in an organization’s safety management system. Employers should ensure that Li-ion batteries, chargers, and associated equipment are tested in accordance with mandated guidelines and that all manufacturer’s instructions for storage, use, charging, and maintenance are followed. This requires that companies have a robust training program for those workers that come in contact or work with Li-ion batteries as part of their job role(s). Training should include how to verify the certification of batteries and the associated equipment (e.g., chargers), identify defective, damaged, or failing Li-on powered devices, and remove defective devices or batteries from the workplace (including disposal and tracking requirements.

Organizations that rely on Li-ion batteries should ensure that an emergency action plan (EAP) for a workplaces and work sites that includes lithium-related incident response procedures based on manufacturer’s instructions for response to battery failures including fires or explosions. In addition, information about the hazards of Li-ion powered devices and lithium batteries must be communicated to exposed workers (e.g., during repair of lithium-powered devices or during recycling activities) and that workers receive training on the physical and health hazards associated with Li-ion and/or lithium-metal cells or batteries.

What are your responsibilities when it comes to Li-ion batteries?

  • Know your liabilities – account for your Li-ion battery use.
  • Track Li-ion batteries from procurement to final disposition.
  • Protect Li-ion batteries during use and storage from adverse conditions.
  • Train employees in Li-ion battery hazards and handling.
  • Update your programs and policies to include Li-ion battery hazards.
  • Ensure cradle-to-grave use and handling protects employees from injuries and incidents.

If your company purchases and uses EV vehicles or other devices with Li-ion batteries, you are a consumer or organization that uses Li-ion batteries in significant quantities, or a Li-ion battery manufacturer, now is the time to look at your emergency and safety management systems for new and forward-thinking policies and procedures. Policies and procedures should center around the entire Li-ion battery life cycle to ensure that when the end of life is reached, the Li-ion batteries follow the proper cradle-to-grave disposal or beneficial recycling track and protect your employees during beneficial use for your company.

James A. Junkin, MS, CSP, SMS, ASP, CSHO is the chief executive officer of Mariner-Gulf Consulting & Services, LLC and the chair of the Veriforce Strategic Advisory Board. He is Columbia Southern University’s 2022 Safety Professional of the Year (Runner Up) and a much sought after master trainer, keynote speaker, podcaster, and author of numerous articles concerning occupational safety and health.