DOT's Lithium Battery Final Rule Takes Effect
Now, packages of any size that contain lithium batteries must be properly sealed and labeled, which could present a challenge to smaller businesses.
- By Matt Holden
- Mar 01, 2015
As of Feb. 6, 2015, companies and manufacturers that ship and package lithium batteries must comply with a new final rule on lithium batteries, formally known as HM-224F. Originally published by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), this rule represents a significant change in how lithium batteries are regulated when shipped by land, sea, and air in the United States.
Changes were made in order bring lithium battery regulations in this country closer to those overseas, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Technical Instructions, the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code, and the UN Model regulations. This means that U.S. companies will have to update training programs and comply with new labeling requirements.
Lithium batteries are unique in that they serve as a reliable source of power for many different applications and devices. This source of power is also the reason why they are so heavily regulated; several significant incidents involving fires in cargo and passenger aircraft have been caused by poor transportation of lithium batteries.
The Federal Aviation Administration has tracked more than 50 lithium battery incidents in aviation alone, encompassing both traveling passengers' baggage as well as cargo shipments. For example, on April 28, 1999, a shipment of lithium metal batteries caught fire at the Northwest Cargo Facility at Los Angeles International Airport when a pallet of lithium batteries was rolled onto its side while being offloaded at the cargo facility. A few hours after the pallet overturned, it caught fire, showcasing the latent dangers of lithium batteries. The concern was that the fire could have occurred while in the air mid-flight.
A study by the National Transportation Safety Board found that of the 34 aircraft-related incidents involving batteries since 2007, those involving lithium batteries were the most prevalent. Poor handling and packing were the most common causes. Incidents don't just occur while in flight; any time a device is being charged in poor conditions, such as in a bedroom under a pillow, there is risk involved, and the device could potentially overheat and start a fire.
Perhaps the biggest change for U.S. companies in the final rule is the elimination of the 12/24 exception. In the past, if a package contained no more than 12 lithium batteries or 24 lithium cells, no hazard mark or documentation was required. This provided companies with a broad exception for shipping a wide range of lithium batteries. Now, packages of any size that contain lithium batteries must be properly sealed and labeled, which could present a challenge to smaller businesses.
Bob Richard, vice president of regulatory affairs for LabelMaster, said these changes are likely to affect high-volume customers more than others due to the large number of shipments being made. In his role at LabelMaster, Richard often visits companies with the intent of putting them in a position to minimize the mistakes made due to the new rule.
"The people who make the classifications, as well as the people who work in distribution centers, packaging, shipping and loading, and receiving, they should have some general awareness of these regulations," said Richard. "Then they should get function-specific training, depending on what products they're handling. We like to make it very specific to that company."
Richard said companies such as power tool companies ship all of their batteries packed into the tools, so they don’t have to worry about contained-in practices and other techniques that don't apply. Companies that are affected by this final rule run the gamut, from cell phone companies to those that develop implantable defibrillators. Start-up companies also present challenges because they might not be aware of some of the regulations before shipping prototypes with lithium batteries. Any company that ships a single lithium battery will have to be aware of these changes and act accordingly.
A unique challenge this rule creates is the proper packaging for consumers to return items with lithium batteries. If someone has a faulty cell phone and wants to return it to the company that makes it, that person runs the risk of improperly packing it without the correct labeling materials. Richard advises his clients to provide consumers with good information by designing kits that are safe and compliant for returning items.
"It's not only consumers; some companies have franchisees and distribution centers," he said. "Look at the auto industry. We've developed hazmat courses online at the dealership level that provide them with kits."
Part of Richard's process involves visiting individual companies in order to assess their needs. Instead of making blanket assumptions about what certain industries need, he can help companies apply techniques based specifically on what it is they produce and what kind of volume they manage. For example, Richard said a power tool company would sometimes be better off giving a customer a credit for a new tool instead of having the customer mail it in to be repaired or replaced. Not only is this less work, but also it can also prevent the customer from improperly shipping a lithium battery and causing an incident. Instead, the company gives the customer instructions on how to properly dispose of the equipment locally.
So what is it about the international regulations that make them seemingly superior to the old U.S. regulations? When Richard previously worked for PHMSA, the FAA asked him and his office to write a lithium battery rule that far exceeded the international rules. This would have made it harder for international companies to ship here in the United States because the rest of the world would have had to adapt. Instead, the group spent years revising the rule until it got to where it is today: in line with the international regulations. "In my mind it only makes sense to go through the international organizations and harmonize with those rules," said Richard. "If the international community agrees with something that you think is a real safety issue, then the U.S. has the authority to deviate when that happens."
He said this adaptation of the international rules has been a long time coming, as it helps promote safety and enhances communication throughout the shipping world.
So What Does This Mean?
The mandatory compliance that took place on Feb. 6 means if people have not changed their operations and packaged their shipments properly, the carriers will reject them. Fines and violations are always a concern for businesses and manufacturers, but when the products aren't getting shipped, that reflects poorly on those businesses in the eyes of consumers.
Some of the other major changes in HM-224F include the replacement of Equivalent Lithium Content (ELC) with watt-hours replacement and new, simplified shipping names and UN numbers. Under the previous regulations, shippers needed to know the ELC of the batteries being shipped, something that isn’t necessarily easy to determine. Measuring watt-hours is a more standardized approach.
PHMSA also has adopted new proper shipping names for lithium ion and lithium metal batteries, as well as new UN numbers, which are essentially identification numbers. One simplification is the use of the same numbers for batteries that are "contained in" and "packed with" equipment.
Going forward, Richard said he expects more changes to come in the final rule. Work has already begun on HM-215M, which would further harmonize lithium battery requirements with international standards beyond what was adopted in the current final rule. Richard also has filed a petition to the rulemaking with the Department of Transportation that identifies some corrections he considers necessary in the rule.
While the lithium battery final rule brings a host of changes that will affect both large and small businesses alike, the fact that it harmonizes U.S. procedures with those overseas will make shipping and packing products for a worldwide audience much easier going forward.
This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.