Safe use, storage and disposal of batteries

 

In late 2018 a fire incident occurred at the ROQ, Primary Health Care Building.  The subsequent investigation identified that the most likely cause of this incident was a lithium ion button battery inside of a Fitbit device.  A number of questions have arisen since this incident.  This memo aims to answer those questions.

Purchasing and use of batteries

Lithium batteries are known to pose a fire risk.  However, the number of such incidents is relatively low.  A failure rate of 1 in a million is suggested for all lithium batteries, with a lower failure rate for those lithium batteries purchased from reputable suppliers.  As such, they pose a negligible risk provided sensible precautions are applied e.g.

  • Be aware of poorly constructed batteries from non-reputable suppliers.  Under UK law battery suppliers who sell more than 32kg of batteries each year must offer a ‘free of charge’ service for collection.  If there is any doubt about whether the supplier is reputable or not, they can be asked to clarify their regimes as an indication of their suitability.
  • Store and use as per the manufacturer’s instructions e.g. avoid extreme temperatures, store in dry locations.

Disposal of batteries

The University updated its hazardous waste policy in 2011 to remind departments that the Safety Office’s hazardous waste stream can be used to dispose of all types of batteries.  The 2011 policy also highlighted the risk of short circuits when disposing of certain batteries.  The current hazardous waste policy is available via the Safety Office’s website and outlines the following arrangements:

  • Although not all batteries are hazardous for disposal, using the Safety Office’s service will ensure they are correctly disposed of or recycled.
  •  Batteries of all types, including disposable and rechargeable batteries (e.g. alkaline, lithium, Ni-Cd, NiMH), lead acid non-spillable batteries (e.g. from UPSs) and lead acid wet batteries (e.g. from University vehicles): use disposal form TW 2/10 (33kb) , Appendix 1.
  •  Most wet batteries are corrosive and are transported as dangerous goods, so must be correctly identified for disposal. Some dry sealed batteries are also classed as dangerous goods (Ni-Cd batteries, batteries containing sodium or lithium, and lithium ion batteries) and these must be collected separately for disposal. The terminals of lead acid and lithium batteries must be covered to avoid possible short circuits.

 For clarity, the following additional points should be noted:

  • Batteries should be segregated by chemical make-up and stored in either separate plastic bags or plastic containers.  The use of battery towers should be phased out as their use can encourage individuals to mix different types of batteries and prevent regular disposal.  Departments should identify an appropriate location(s) for collecting and segregating their battery waste.
  •  It is relatively easy to identify the different types of battery by the information recorded on them.  For example, the following types are common:

 

 Alkaline
 Alkaline batteries
 Lithium ion
 Lithium ion battery
 Lithium metal
 Lithium metal battery
 Nickel-cadmium battery (NiCd)
 Nickel Cadmium battery NiCd
 Nickel metal hydride (NiMH or Ni-MH)
 Nickel metal hydride NiMH or Ni-MH
 Zinc carbon and chloride
 Zinc carbon and chloride

As above, battery terminals from lead acid and lithium batteries must be covered to avoid possible short circuits.  It is estimated that 70% of all single use batteries retain some level of charge even after their useable life.  As such, all button batteries should be covered to avoid contact between terminals.  Electrical tape can be used for this purpose or replace them inside their original packaging.

  •  Battery waste, like other forms of waste, should be disposed of on a routine basis.  For example, those departments who utilise the red HAZBox scheme should remove their battery waste during each quarterly collection.  Departments who do not use the HAZbox scheme should routinely clear their battery waste on a similar frequency by completing the disposal form TW 2/10 (33kb) and arranging for disposal via the Safety Office.

 Emergency procedures

If batteries show signs of deterioration or damage, then:

  • Isolate from flammable materials e.g. place inside a metal container/box.
  • Notify the University Safety Office.
  • The Safety Office will then advise on what to do next, including the provision of antistatic bags to safely contain certain batteries prior to disposal.

B Jenkins

April 2019