Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly popular and so ensuring their safety is paramount. This article explores how to manage the key hazards and risks for the safe operation of electric vehicles.
Current UK Government policy is to end the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 and for all new cars and vans to be fully zero emission at the tailpipe by 2035.
As a result, vehicle manufacturers are now focusing on alternative means of power, most notably electric as they phase out the manufacture and sale of petrol and diesel engine vehicles.
Latest figures from the RAC suggest that there are 712,000 “Battery Electric Vehicles” registered in the UK along with over 200,000 plug-in hybrids.
As this figure increases annually, organisations transitioning to an electric vehicle fleet will need to consider the potential hazards and risks associated with electric vehicles.
Currently, there are three types of vehicles.
Battery electric vehicles use a large capacity battery and electric motor/s to drive the vehicle. The battery needs to be charged from the electricity supply network when the vehicle is not in use.
Hybrid vehicles typically use two sources of power (internal combustion engine and battery) automatically with the vehicle braking systems used to charge the battery. This differs from a plug-in hybrid vehicle that can have its battery charged directly from the electrical supply network.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), “voltages present in electric and hybrid vehicles are significantly higher (currently up to 650 Volts direct current (dc)) than those used in other vehicles (12/24 Volts dc)” and that “in dry conditions, accidental contact with parts that are live at voltages above 110 Volts dc can be fatal”.
Battery systems may contain chemicals that can be harmful if released. They also store significant amounts of energy that can give rise to explosion if not dealt with correctly.
Based upon the above, the HSE have produced a list of hazards associated with these types of vehicles. This includes the following.
Other hazards identified include:
Although data is limited, there is some evidence to suggest that fires involving electric vehicles are increasing.
With an increase in vehicles this is likely to be the case but certainly there has been some notable warnings issued by UK fire and rescue services in recent times, particularly in relation to electric bicycles and scooters using lithium-ion batteries.
Of the data available, it does suggest that “thermal runaway” associated with vehicle batteries is causing rapid fire spread and total loss of the vehicle involved in the fire.
As a result, transport providers for example are banning users from taking their e-scooters onto trains.
The powerful voltages required to charge battery electric vehicles must be carefully managed. Factors to consider include:
There may be circumstances where employees may be required to charge vehicles at home. Although there is limited guidance on this situation, organisations should as part of the risk assessment process be determining if this can be undertaken safely, following best practice.
In terms of best practice, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) have published Code of Practice for Electric Vehicle Charging Equipment Installation, 4th Edition.
This publication provides a clear overview of charging equipment, as well as setting out the considerations needed prior to installations and the necessary physical and electrical installation requirements.
It also details what needs to be considered when installing electric vehicle charging equipment in various different locations — such as domestic dwellings, on-street locations, and commercial and industrial premises.
The fire risk assessment for the workplace should also be reviewed to determine whether any additional general fire precautions may be required when installing charging facilities. Factors to consider may include:
Any installation should be undertaken by a competent organisation. The Office for Zero Emission Vehicles contains a list of authorised installers. These installers should follow best practice as provided by the IET and also found BS EN 61851-1: Electric Vehicle Conductive Charging System-General Requirements.
Clearly all employees required to charge electric vehicles must be provided with the relevant information, instruction and training. The primary source of information will be any guidance provided by both the vehicle manufacturer and charging equipment manufacturer.
It may also be advisable to extend training to include what action to take in the event of a malfunction including fire and faults with either vehicles or charging equipment.
As with any equipment installed in the workplace, the charging equipment must be subject to regular and appropriate inspection and maintenance. Again, the primary source of information to inform this regime will be from the manufacturer/s.
Employers may face situations where employees wish to store and charge e-scooters/e-bikes at the workplace (when using them to commute to and from work for example).
This should be subject to a risk assessment/fire risk assessment to determine the risks involved.
The National Fire Chiefs Council has produced generic guidance on charging including using approved charging devices and avoiding storage in escape routes. Further details can be found from the link below.
Electric vehicles can have different characteristics to combustion engine vehicles. As such all drivers should be given familiarisation training to include:
There may be circumstances where electric vehicles have to be worked on. The HSE have identified four categories as follows.
The HSE website notes that “additional skills and training will be necessary to allow people to work safely with E&HVs. The levels of competency required will vary greatly and are dependent on the type of work that people are expected to do”.
A suitable and sufficient risk assessment should be undertaken if any of the above activities are to be carried out by employees. Organisations such as the Institute of Motoring Industry have various courses to ensure competency of employees.
The HSE website also provides basic safety information in relation to the four categories noted above.
For example, it states that when undertaking maintenance (that excludes the high voltage systems), employees should:
Electric vehicles are becoming the norm. As such, where an organisation is to utilise such vehicles, it is important that the hazards and risks associated with the use of such vehicles are known and appropriately managed.
As electric vehicles are a relatively new technology, it may be the case that the hazards involved with their use may change and increase.
It is advisable when introducing electric vehicles and associated charging points that their use and maintenance are kept under review.
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(Correct at time of posting)