Training Supports the Safe Shipment of Lithium Batteries
Training workers on how to handle, pack, and transport lithium batteries is an important step to reducing the risks associated with shipping them.
Cellphones, laptops, wheelchairs, vehicles - lithium batteries power numerous devices we use in our everyday lives. Due to our growing reliance on them, lithium battery shipments have become more frequent.
Unfortunately, transporting these batteries comes with some risks. Lithium batteries are dangerous, mainly because their higher energy density makes them more prone to catching on fire or exploding if mishandled. Therefore, personnel responsible for handling and shipping these batteries must have adequate knowledge of how to properly handle and package them.
In this article, we'll go over the hazards associated with the transportation of lithium batteries and the precautions required by the Department of Transportation's Hazardous Materials Regulations (DOT HMR).
What Are Lithium Batteries?
Lithium batteries are small, lightweight, and have a large energy storage capacity. Thanks to these qualities, they have become very common in high-energy electronic devices.
Each lithium battery is composed of one or more lithium cells connected electrically. These cells consist of four components:
- A positive electrode (cathode)
- A negative electrode (anode)
- A separator
- An electrolyte solution
The electrolyte solution allows lithium ions to travel between the cathode and anode, passing through the separator. This process creates an electrical charge that is stored in the battery, which is then discharged when the battery is installed in a compatible device.
Are Lithium Batteries Dangerous?
With this increased dependency on lithium batteries, it is important to acknowledge that these batteries can be dangerous if mishandled. Lithium batteries that are packaged or stored incorrectly, overcharged, damaged, or defective are at risk of short circuiting, overheating, venting, leaking, igniting, and undergoing thermal runaway. This can then result in the expulsion of toxic fumes, fires, or explosion.
In fact, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) states that "All lithium cells and batteries are hazardous materials when being transported, no matter the size or quantity.”
UN Number Classifications for Lithium Batteries
To protect workers, transportation authorities, such as the DOT, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have created specific rules and regulations for the safe shipment of lithium batteries by highway, rail, air, or sea vessel.
These regulatory authorities all use the UN number classification to identify and designate safety protocols for shipping lithium batteries. Each of these classifications has specific shipping guidelines that must be followed.
The eight descriptions for lithium cells and batteries, according to the battery’s chemistry, are listed below:
|Stand-alone||Package contains only the cells/batteries, but no equipment||UN3090 for lithium metal batteries|
UN3480 for lithium ion batteries
|Packed with||Package contains the equipment and the cells/batteries, but the cells/batteries are not installed in the equipment||UN3091 for lithium metal batteries|
UN3481 for lithium ion batteries
|Contained in||Package contains the equipment with cells/batteries installed||UN3091 for lithium metal batteries|
UN3481 for lithium ion batteries
|Vehicles||Package or shipment contains a lithium-battery powered vehicle||UN3171|
|Cargo Transport Unit||Lithium batteries are installed in a cargo transport unit||UN3536|
Employee Training for the Safe Shipment of Lithium Batteries
As lithium batteries fall within the purview of hazardous materials, employees involved in handling and shipping them must receive adequate training.
According to the DOT training requirements, employers must provide hazmat personnel with training within 90 days of employment to:
- Recognize and identify hazardous materials
- Fully understand DOT HMR requirements according to their job
- Respond to emergencies
- Practice self-protection and accident prevention measures
In addition to learning about the regulations through online training, employees must also receive on-the-job training to ensure they fully understand the regulatory requirements as well as the relevant safety protocols.
Retraining Requirements for Shipping Lithium Batteries
- The DOT HMR requires each hazmat employee to undergo regular training once every three years
- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and IATA DGR require employees to be trained once every two years if they are involved in the air transportation of hazardous materials
Topics to Include in a Lithium Battery Shipping Training Course
Training on the safe handling and shipment of lithium batteries must cover the requirements of the six UN classifications listed above. Any training course (whether taken online or in person) must also cover all the salient points of the DOT HMR, IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR), and IMO’s Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code.
Employees must be trained on the do's and don'ts of shipping lithium batteries. For instance, lithium batteries must be tested before shipping. As such, employees must be able to conduct the different tests specified in Section 38.3 of the UN Manual of Tests and Criteria to check the stability of lithium batteries in various conditions, including altitude simulations, overcharge impacts, temperature variations, external short circuits, and shock and vibration effects.
Lithium batteries must also be packaged correctly for transport by highway, rail, air, or ship, requiring employees to be familiar with several rules set out by regulators. For example:
- Lithium batteries must be packaged in a way that prevents hazardous material from being released into the environment
- There must be no mixing of gasses inside the package that could create high temperatures or pressure
- Lithium batteries should have overpacks when relevant
- Protective packaging should be made of foam, bubble wrap, or other nonconductive materials
- Packaging must be strong enough to prevent crushing and withstand normal handling
- Lithium battery packages must be labeled properly and the vehicle, container, rail car, or cargo transport unit must be appropriately placarded
These factors and other pertinent information related to lithium battery shipping must be covered in any training course provided to employees.
Unfortunately, there are inherent risks to shipping lithium batteries. Handling, packing, or transporting them improperly can result in fire or explosion, which can ruin products, damage equipment, or injure workers.
Thankfully, those hazards can be mitigated by implementing rigorous safety procedures. This, combined with a comprehensive training program, can help you ensure that lithium batteries are packed and shipped without incident.