Shipping lithium batteries

By: Josh Lovan

Publication: Hazmat Transportation Regulatory Alert

Date Posted: 05/18/2022

Lithium-ion batteries were initially commercialized in 1991 by Sony to power handheld video recorders and more than three decades later, lithium-ion batteries power everything from smartphones to electric cars. Lithium-ion batteries can release extreme levels of heat when damaged or improperly stored, and these hazards pose a significant risk for the transportation industry. The hazardous materials regulations provide extensive requirements for packaging and shipping lithium-ion batteries.

Hazardous Materials Compliance Manual
Hazardous Materials Compliance

This compliance manual provides thorough, reliable guidance on how to prepare and ship hazmat ... safely and in full compliance with the complex, detailed, and continually changing Hazardous Materials Regulations.

Understanding the statistics

Lithium-ion batteries have become highly regulated in recent years, so you have likely observed numerous headlines about recalls involving fires. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 25,000 overheating or fire incidents involving approximately 400 types of lithium battery products occurred during a five-year period. To minimize the risk of thermal events, it is important to understand prevention measures and proper packaging requirements.

Each lithium-ion battery must be protected against short circuiting by protecting the terminals, and each battery must be placed in non-metallic inner packaging that completely encloses the battery. Additionally, the batteries must be packed to prevent internal movement that could damage the batteries within the outer packaging. In simple language, batteries should never come into contact with other batteries.

Paying attention to warning signs

If a shipment of lithium-ion batteries is damaged during the transportation cycle, the damaged cartons should be isolated and placed in a well-ventilated area. If the inner contents have spilled from the battery, the affected carton should be placed in a container of sand or other chemically inert material. The shipper should be contacted for additional instructions if the shipment is damaged or leaking.

Prior to a lithium-ion battery incident, early warning signs are often present. If a carton feels warm, it is possible that the inner packaging has failed. Another common indicator is when a battery begins to swell or develop bulges. Batteries that swell often make hissing or cracking sounds and produce a strong chemical odor. Exercise caution when inspecting cartons that have become separated from a pallet during transit.

Adopting best practices

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA) provided the following guidelines for handling and storing lithium-ion batteries:

  • Always load shipments of lithium-ion batteries on the trailer floor
  • Avoid stacking heavy freight on shipments of lithium-ion batteries
  • Avoid extreme heat and freezing temperatures, including direct sunlight
  • Segregate batteries from other materials in a well-ventilated area
  • Never open or unassemble sealed batteries

Regulations vary by mode of transportation, but all shipments of lithium-ion batteries require documentation that indicates whether the package contains lithium metal or lithium-ion batteries, the potential of a flammability hazard in the event of damage, and special emergency procedures to follow.

Your hazardous materials training program should include specific information about the safe transportation of lithium-ion batteries. If an incident occurs, your employees will be prepared to mitigate the exposure and minimize risk to your organization.

Key to remember:Carriers can prevent thermal battery failures by detecting early warning signs and adopting adequate prevention measures.

About the author
Josh Lovan

Josh Lovan is an Industry Business Advisor at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. He specializes in hours of service, hazmat, injury prevention, security, and motor carrier safety management.

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