Safely using batteries in the office: 5 rules to follow

From smartphones and tablets, to laptops, e-bikes, or electric scooters: batteries are ubiquitous in the office environment. Many devices work with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. They are safe to use, but you must take these 5 rules into consideration.

It is a myth that these batteries only overheat during use or when they are charging. A lithium-ion battery can even cause a short circuit and catch fire when it is not in use. Specifically, there are 4 situations that have a greater risk:

  • Damaged batteries, after having been dropped, for example.
  • Refurbished batteries, in which the battery cells have been replaced, but the housing preserved. Incorrect handling can cause problems leading to a short circuit. Such overhauls are a common practice, especially with electric bicycles.
  • Old batteries. Usually, a lithium-ion battery needs to be replaced after 3 years.
  • When the battery is used intensively, the risk of problems increases.

These 5 rules will keep any risks of short circuits and fires to a minimum.

Rule 1: Always choose known battery manufacturers

The quality of products from an unrecognised manufacturer is generally unknown. Play it safe and buy devices, batteries, and chargers from well-known brands only. Your (external) prevention advisor can give you advice about this.  Always buy spare parts from the brand itself; try to avoid unbranded alternatives. Although the latter are usually cheaper, they often fall short in terms of safety.

Rule 2: Replace damaged parts

Dropping a battery can deform or damage it. This is certainly the case with loose batteries, where there is a high risk of damage if you change the battery in a laptop or smartphone, for example. If the battery remains in a device that has been dropped, the risk of damage decreases.

Ask employees to report dropped devices/batteries so a professional repairer can take a look. It is the same for the battery charger: replace damaged parts immediately, even if they do not yet appear defective.

If possible, keep a few spare batteries on hand. This means employees do not have to exchange batteries between devices. If the power supply is not identical, the battery can overheat and cause a short circuit.

Rule 3: Provide safe charging points

A charging location must meet these four conditions: near a smoke detector, out of direct sunlight, away from flammable materials, and without multiple plugs or power strips. Make sure the charger and battery can dissipate their heat while charging, and make sure there is plenty of ventilation.

Leaving a battery in a charger overnight is not a good idea. Of course, you can point this out to employees, but making use of a professional timer can avoid a fire caused by a forgetful employee. Such a timer blocks the power from a socket at preset times, for example at the start and end of the working day. This ensures batteries stop charging, even if they are still connected to a charger.

Did you know you can charge batteries safely in specially developed safes? They contain an alarm system and sometimes even an extinguishing system. There are also fire-resistant cabinets for the storage of batteries.

Rule 4: Maintain a safe distance between charging points

More and more offices are providing charging points for electric cars or e-bikes. They should be installed at a safe distance – at least ten metres – from your company’s building. Dividing the charging points into separate compartments is strongly recommended for charging points in an underground car park or enclosed bicycle shed. This will ensure that a fire cannot spread. Group the charging points and make them easily accessible so the vehicles can be easily removed if necessary.

Important: mark all the car and bicycle charging points on your fire intervention plan.

Rule 5: Carry out a risk analysis for all rechargeable lithium-ion batteries

Although the fire legislation describes batteries as objects with an increased risk of fire, there are no specific regulations in force yet. You are therefore expected to be sensible yourself and make your employees aware of the safety requirements.

Include the use of rechargeable devices in your risk analyses so any specific prevention measures that may be necessary can be identified. For example, you may need to consider developing a procedure for reporting incidents or conducting regular maintenance. The number of incidents involving lithium-ion batteries may be limited, but prevention is always better than cure.