Battery fears prompt new maritime safety warning

There are new calls for more risk management over the rising risk of battery fires on marine vessels across the world’s oceans.

Marine insurer Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS) has warned lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are increasingly impacting shipping safety being the cause of a growing number of fires on vessels such as roll-on roll-off (ro-ro) car carriers and container ships.

It warned given the many difficulties involving in suppressing such incidents, particularly at sea, focusing on loss prevention measures is crucial, whether batteries are transported within electric vehicles (EVs) or as standalone cargo.

“Shipping losses may have more than halved over the past decade but fires on board vessels remain among the biggest safety issues for the industry. The potential dangers that the transportation of lithium-ion batteries pose if they are not stored or handled correctly only add to these concerns, and we have already seen a number of incidents,” explains Captain Rahul Khanna, global head of marine risk consulting at AGCS. “Companies should do all that they possibly can to implement, develop and follow robust loss prevention measures, given the growing popularity of electric vehicles means many more vehicles with lithium-ion batteries will be transported by sea in future.”

The report Lithium-ion batteries: Fire risks and loss prevention measures in shipping highlighted four main hazards: fire (Li-ion batteries contain electrolyte, an ignitable liquid); explosion (resulting from the release of ignitable vapor/gases in a confined space); thermal runaway (a rapid self-heating fire that can cause an explosion); and the toxic gases that these hazards can produce.

The most common causes of these hazards are substandard manufacturing of battery cells/devices; over-charging of the battery cells; over-temperature by short circuiting, and damaged battery cells or devices, which, among other causes, can result from poor packing and handling or cargo shift in rough seas if not adequately secured.

“Batteries are not only a potential cause of fire if damaged, overcharged or subjected to high temperatures, they can also aggravate other causes of fire at sea and are difficult to extinguish as they have the potential to reignite days or even weeks later,” says Khanna. “In most shipboard incidents a thermal runaway event can be a significant possibility unless immediate action is taken by the crew, such as suppressing a fire with copious amounts of water over a long period of time. However, this can be extremely challenging due to factors such as early detection being difficult, a shortage of crew members on board, and if the vessel’s firefighting capabilities are inadequate.”

AGCS said the primary focus must be on loss prevention, with storage and in transit the key focus areas.

“If the maritime industry is to improve its incident record related to the transportation of lithium-ion batteries all parties involved in the supply chain must understand the hazards involved, the most common causes and the problems associated with transporting in commerce,” explained Captain Randall Lund, senior marine risk consultant at AGCS, author of the report together with fellow AGCS marine risk consultants Miguel Herrera and Justin Kersey. “Regulations and guidance are specific in addressing these batteries to help prevent most incidents, but these can only be effective if they are communicated and enforced. Only through a concerted effort by stakeholders in the supply chain can we hope to reduce the rate of incidents.”

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