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May 24, 2024

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EV manufacturing: Protecting worker safety in the gigafactory boom

Matthew Parr from Hughes Safety Showers, explains the necessity for emergency safety showers and eye/face washes within gigafactories as their popularity across Europe is on the rise.

As governments and policymakers recognise the urgency to prioritise sustainability, the shift toward electric vehicles is becoming more evident in Europe.

In March 2023, the European Parliament voted to approve new legislation to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2035. While the legislation awaits approval from the European Council, the momentum toward embracing all-electric vehicles is undeniably gaining speed.

Gigafactories, renowned for their scale of operations in producing lithium-ion batteries, are inherently associated with high-risk environments.

Unit sales of new electric vehicles in Europe are expected to reach 3.44 million by 2028, with a further 1.4-million-unit sales of new plug-in electric hybrid vehicles¹. And where there’s a demand for electric vehicles, a demand for lithium-ion batteries follows.

Currently, there is just one UK gigafactory – AESC UK in Sunderland, which supplies batteries for Nissan’s electric vehicles. Across Europe this figure is expected to rise in the coming years – with Germany, Hungary and France expected to become home to 19 of them².

Gigafactories, renowned for their scale of operations in producing lithium-ion batteries, are inherently associated with high-risk environments due to the nature of the materials and processes involved. Understanding and addressing these risks faced by this growing workforce is paramount to ensuring their safety and well-being.

Example of Tesla’s Gigafactory in Texas, US. Credit: John McAdorey/Alamy Stock.

Manufacturing risks

Lithium-ion batteries consist of four main components: cathode, anode, separator, and electrolyte. Mishandling, overcharging, short-circuiting, or overheating of these batteries can result in potential risks such as expansion, splintering, and leakage, posing serious hazards within the workplace.

Automation within the manufacturing process along with the proper use of PPE helps protect workers from contact with hazardous materials, but employers must be prepared. If the electrolytes leak or spill from the battery they can react with air and water to produce hydrofluoric acid.

Further listening: Lithium-ion battery fire risks – What you need to know (part one)

What are the effects of a hydrofluoric acid burn?

Abbas Kanani MRPharmS, superintendent pharmacist at Chemist Click, explained the dangers hydrofluoric acid poses when it comes into contact with the body.

Credit: Eric Farrelly/Alamy Stock.

He said: “Hydrofluoric acid is one of the strongest acids that causes corrosive burns and can also involve underlying bone. It is highly toxic and damaging. Contact with high-concentration products can be fatal.”

When a person first comes into contact with hydrofluoric acid, they’ll experience severe pain at the site of the burn. Kanani elaborated stating: “There may be swelling, slow-healing burns, blisters or a rash present and pain can occur even if there are no visible burns.”

The lasting damage can be significant too, with Kanani adding: “Skin damage can take a long time to heal and can result in severe scarring. Eye exposure can cause permanent blindness or total destruction of the eye.”

In the event of accidental contact with hydrochloric acid, a thorough decontamination as quickly as possible for at least 15 minutes is essential to remove any residual chemical.

Effective decontamination in the event of an emergency

The provision of emergency safety showers and eye/face washes is a necessity in any hazardous environment. They are the first line of defence in the event of an accidental chemical splash or spillage.

EN15154 is the European standard for this kind of safety equipment and outlines recommendations focused on the performance and use of safety showers and eye/face washes, such as;

  • Water temperature: According to the European Standard, safety showers and eye/face wash equipment should deliver tepid water in the range of 15-38C. The human body strives to maintain a steady internal temperature within a normal range of 32 to 38C. When the body encounters water temperature significantly above or below its core temperature, it instinctively reacts.

A higher water temperature may scald the injured person, adding temperature burns to their chemical injury. Hotter water may also cause skin to absorb more of the hazardous chemicals.

The opposite reaction occurs when the body experiences extreme cold. Lower temperatures can lead to hypothermia or thermal shock. People are also less likely to remove contaminated clothing and PPE if the water is too cold. Clothes containing chemical residue will prolong exposure and exacerbate burns if not removed.

Whether the water is scalding or freezing, the natural human reaction is to withdraw from the temperature extreme to protect the body. At least 15 minutes of flushing is recommended to completely rinse away most hazardous chemicals. The only way to ensure this length of time is adhered to is to control the water temperature in the tepid range.

  • Flow Rate: Emergency showers deliver a water flow of at least 76 litres per minute for 15 minutes. This provides enough time to remove contaminated clothing and rinse thoroughly.

Matthew Parr, Head of Sales at Hughes Safety Showers

If the flow rate is too low, hazardous chemicals may not be completely washed off the skin leading to ongoing chemical burns. Water flow from emergency showers is much greater than the standard home shower head, which averages 8-11 litres per minute of flow. The dangers of hazardous chemicals vary by each chemical’s specific properties, however in general a deluge of water is required to wash them away.

Eye/face wash equipment must deliver at least 12 litres per minute for 15 minutes. Features such as aerated diffusers and individual flow controllers ensure the eye wash provides a gentle washing action without causing any further injury.

  • Operation: Emergency safety shower stations must be accessible and easy to-operate, even with impaired vision. Safety showers and eye wash valves are designed so the flushing flow remains on without the use of the operator’s hands. The control valve must go from ‘off’ to ‘on’ in one second or less.
  • Location: Installation of this equipment should be within 20 metres, or 10 seconds reach, of the hazard without stairs, ramps, or obstacles in the path. Obviously, it must be located in a clearly visible, easily identifiable position as a casualty would find it difficult to negotiate doors or partitions.

Specific site standards, detailed risk assessments and health and safety guidelines surrounding hazardous substances and decontamination must be followed to protect employees and determine the steps that need to be taken in the event of an accident.

Protection for Everyone - SHP's Inclusive PPE Campaign

SHP is running a campaign to bring awareness around the issues of ill-fitting PPE and lobby Government to bring about change.

We'll work alongside a range of stakeholders including suppliers and distributors, industry bodies, and, importantly, those who have experienced ill-fitting PPE.

Please contact us ([email protected]) to get involved, share your stories and support a campaign that affects everyone!

Click here to find out more!

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