Lithium-ion batteries (or Li-ion batteries) are considered safe to use, but with growing usage from millions of consumers and businesses, failure is bound to happen. Issues with exploding cell phones, e-cigarettes, and laptops haven't gone away, even years after the Samsung Galaxy 7 recall. In the aviation industry alone, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported a total of 340 incidents involving smoking or burning lithium-ion batteries between 2006 and 2021.
Due to the rising popularity of Li-ion batteries, it’s crucial that businesses and employees who commonly use products and devices powered by lithium-ion batteries understand the associated safety hazards as well as basic handling and storage guidelines to avoid workplace fires and injuries.
Let's discuss how lithium-ion battery fires start, which fire extinguisher to use, and useful lithium-ion battery safety tips to ensure your employees are prepared and able to prevent these fires from occurring in the workplace.
Why Do Lithium-Ion Batteries Catch Fire?
Should you worry about your cell phone or computer spontaneously catching on fire? Don’t worry; the chances of it happening are slim.
There are two basic types of lithium-ion battery failure. The first involves a defect within the manufacturing of the battery, and when the defect is discovered, Li-ion batteries are typically recalled. For example, two different battery flaws in the Samsung Galaxy Note7 smartphone lead to two separate recalls and, ultimately, the permanent withdrawal of the model from the market.
The second type of battery failure is hard to pinpoint. It’s usually the result of a stress event such as vibration, an electrical short, or could simply be a fluke. As Battery University explains:
“A mild short will only cause elevated self-discharge and the heat buildup is minimal because the discharging power is very low. If enough microscopic metallic particles converge on one spot, a sizable current begins to flow between the electrodes of the cell, and the spot heats up and weakens. As a small water leak in a faulty hydro dam can develop into a torrent and take a structure down, so too can heat buildup damage the insulation layer in a cell and cause an electrical short. The temperature can quickly reach 500°C (932°F), at which point the cell catches fire or it explodes.”
How to Extinguish a Lithium-Ion Battery Fire
Despite their name, lithium-ion batteries used in consumer products do not contain any lithium metal. Therefore, a Class D fire extinguisher is not to be used to fight a lithium-ion battery fire. Class D fire extinguishers, which contain dry powder, are intended for combustible metal fires only. Since lithium-ion batteries aren’t made with metallic lithium, a Class D dry powder extinguisher would not be effective.
So, how do you choose the right fire extinguisher in this scenario? Lithium-ion batteries are considered a Class B fire, so a standard ABC or dry chemical fire extinguisher should be used. Class B is the classification given to flammable liquids. Lithium-ion batteries contain liquid electrolytes that provide a conductive pathway, so the batteries receive a Class B fire classification.
The Ultimate Guide to fire extinguishers
Download the Ultimate Guide to Fire Extinguishers to learn more about the different types of fire extinguishers.Learn More →
Lithium-Ion Battery Safety Tips for Employees
Workplace injuries from lithium-ion batteries are preventable with continual employee education. Here are some lithium-ion battery safety tips to help businesses and their employees prevent workplace fires and injuries.
- Always follow local, state, and federal regulations on proper battery disposal
- Adhere to manufacturer guidelines when extinguishing small battery fires
- Only use the battery that is designed for the device
- Only use the charging cord that came with the device
- Keep batteries in their original packaging
- Keep batteries at room temperature
- Avoid placing batteries in direct sunlight or in hot vehicles
- Store batteries in dry areas with adequate ventilation
- Store devices and batteries in a fire-resistant container
- Remove batteries from their charger when fully charged
- Do not charge a device under pillows or on a couch
- Purchase and use devices that are listed by a qualified testing laboratory
- Replacement batteries and chargers should match and come from the original manufacturer or an authorized reseller
- Avoid non-uniform stacking of boxes containing batteries as it can lead to tipping
- Inspect for damage and batteries before use. If defects are found, do not use and place them away from flammable materials
- Immediately remove a device if a battery feels hot or shows damage
Prevent Lithium-Ion Battery Fires and Keep Your Workplace Safe
As the rate of lithium-ion battery fires continues to increase, companies need to understand how to prevent and extinguish these fires to keep their workplace safe and operational. While having safety procedures put in place is important, businesses should partner with an experienced fire protection company to ensure they have the right type of fire extinguisher that can quickly extinguish a lithium-ion battery fire if and when it occurs.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on August 11, 2017, and has been updated for accuracy and current best practices.