Taking the risk out of dangerous goods

Taking the risk out of dangerous goods

The use of lithium batteries is booming, but they do pose a fire threat. There are ways to mitigate this risk while you transport these cells.

Whether they are used in vehicles or electronic devices, lithium-ion batteries can catch fire if they have been improperly manufactured or damaged, or if the battery’s software has not been correctly designed.

DSV, a global supplier of transport and logistics solutions with offices in more than 90 countries, says that the type of battery can also influence the risk of fire and explosion, noting, “Lithium-ion is, after all, a collective name for a large number of different active materials that can be in the battery.”

Some examples include:

  • Lithium cobalt oxide: popular in consumer devices due to its high energy density, but relatively unsafe.
  • Lithium manganese oxide: provides a lot of power and is commonly used in electrical tools; is safer but has less capacity than lithium cobalt oxide.
  • Lithium-nickel-manganese cobalt oxide: high capacity and relatively safe; popular in e-bikes, amongst other things.
  • Lithium-iron phosphate: often used as an alternative to lead-acid batteries in, for example, lift trucks; one of the safest solutions on the market.
  • Lithium titanate: long life and quickly rechargeable, but expensive; one of the safest batteries on the market, particularly for electric vehicles.

“Due to the risks associated with lithium batteries, transportation is subject to strict rules,” DSV points out. “These rules differ from country to country and modality to modality. Stricter requirements apply to air freight than to sea freight or road transport. Moreover, the regulations are constantly changing. The reason is that the manufacturers of consumer appliances and electric vehicles put a lot of money into the development of lithium batteries. As a result, the specifications change with great regularity, with the result that the safety requirements also have to be adjusted.”

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) highlights the rapid increase in global demand for lithium batteries as another challenge; the market is growing 30% annually, bringing many new shippers into air cargo supply chains. A critical risk that is evolving, for example, concerns incidents of undeclared or mis-declared shipments.

“Airlines, shippers, manufacturers, and governments all want to ensure the safe transport of lithium batteries by air. It’s a joint responsibility,” says Willie Walsh, IATA director general. “The industry is raising the bar to consistently apply existing standards and share critical information on rogue shippers. But there are some areas where the leadership of governments is critical. Stronger enforcement of existing regulations and the criminalisation of abuses will send a strong signal to rogue shippers. And the accelerated development of standards for screening, information exchange, and fire containment will give the industry even more effective tools to work with.”

DSV, meanwhile, offers four tips for the safe and unhindered transport of lithium batteries:

Choose the correct packaging method

It is important to know whether batteries are mounted in a device or are supplied as a separate part in a product’s packaging. “The first option presents the least risk: the device acts as an additional protective layer for the battery. Mounting the battery in the device requires extra handling during production or assembly, but the transport is therefore bound by less strict rules and is possibly also cheaper.”

The risk is higher and the requirements stricter if the batteries are packaged separately. “The packaging must meet special requirements and the battery itself must not be charged more than 30%. In many cases, transport by passenger plane is prohibited. The amount of lithium batteries per package is also limited – one shipment may not contain more than 35 kg of the heaviest type. Since January 1, 2018, the packaging of lithium batteries with other dangerous goods is strictly prohibited.”

Use the most recent safety data sheet

A material safety data sheet (MSDS) must be present for each hazardous good. “The magazine contains, among other things, the classification of the product and the associated risks. Every shipper is obliged to provide that sheet to the logistics partner who is responsible for the transport. This does not always happen, with the result that the logistics partner sometimes uses Google and downloads the first MSDS found. The question is whether that is the right document. Always include the most recent MSDS.”

The MSDS must be revised if legislation changes. “This adapted document does not always penetrate every link in the logistics chain. Consider, for example, a manufacturer of consumer products who purchases lithium batteries for its devices from a supplier. The question is how well the manufacturer is aware of any changes to the specifications of the purchased batteries. It still happens that a shipment is accompanied by an MSDS from 2007 or 2008. That cannot be right.”

Consult with logistics partners

Anyone offering a shipment of lithium batteries to a logistics partner for the first time would be well advised to coordinate this with the partner. “Are the batteries installed in the device or are they included in the product packaging as a separate part? What is the capacity of the batteries? What does the transport package look like? Are there any other products in it than just lithium batteries? Sharing information facilitates cooperation in the chain, prevents misunderstandings and reduces the chance that laws or rules are overlooked. Are there doubts? Then call in an experienced expert.”

Add the correct documents and labels

The final tip concerns the packaging. “It must contain the correct documents and labels with symbols. Consider the air waybill, but also the shippers’ declaration in which the shipper declares that dangerous goods are packaged in accordance with the Dangerous Goods Regulations of IATA. The labels must contain the symbols that apply to specific shipment batteries. For example, this can be a ‘cargo aircraft only’ label in the event that the shipment is not allowed on a passenger aircraft. Sometimes the brand of lithium batteries must be mentioned, as well as the weight of batteries in the package.”

IATA highlights that safety data is critical to understanding and managing lithium battery risks effectively. Without sufficient relevant data, there is little ability to understand the effectiveness of any measures. Better information sharing and coordination on lithium battery incidents among governments and with the industry is essential to help manage lithium battery risks effectively.

Published by

Jaco de Klerk

In his capacity as editor of SHEQ MANAGEMENT, Jaco de Klerk is regarded as one of the country’s leading journalists when it comes to the issue of sustainability. He is also assistant editor of FOCUS on Transport & Logistics.
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