Sorry for the terrible choice of words. But when you’ve convened the world’s foremost experts in lithium battery shipping the same week the world’s largest smartphone maker recalls millions of units due to battery issues, it’s all we can do to not call the session “explosive.”
Okay, we’re done now.
Friday morning’s lithium battery panel included views from regulators, shippers, battery makers and businesses like Labelmaster who aim to keep battery shipments moving compliantly. We heard sharp insights, strong opinions, good-natured disagreement and an overwhelming consensus toward balancing public safety and business sanity within an imperfect system.
It was a grand finish to the best DG Symposium yet.
The panel was moderated by Labelmaster VP of Regulatory Affairs Bob Richard, whose prior employment as a PHMSA regulator gives him peerless insight into both sides of battery transport regulation.
Each panelist gave a brief presentation.
George Kerchner, of the Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA), reminded us “There is no new battery technology on the horizon—we’re stuck with lithium ion for the foreseeable future.” He warned that containerized lithium batteries are coming—and so are new UN Model Regulations to deal with them.
Todd Mackintosh, of General Motors, described his efforts with the SAE G-27 Lithium Battery Packaging Group to develop a minimum performance standard to safely ship lithium batteries as cargo on aircraft: “They lock us in a room for a week at a time to come up with a test standard. It seems to work.” They’re hoping to publish the standard in 2017.
Geoff Leach, of The Dangerous Goods Office, Ltd., was privy to the negotiations that produced the April 1, 2016 ICAO restrictions. He said the 30% state-of-charge limitation was meant as a mitigating factor to avoid the complete ban of lithium ion batteries as cargo from passenger aircraft—and he was flabbergasted when both were passed. “You have to forget logic,” he said.
David Brennan, of IATA, pointed out that many of our issues with air transport of lithium batteries stem from a lack of education. “The people who ship Dangerous Goods for a living know what they’re doing, but lithium batteries have a different group of people involved—shippers with no background in DG.”
Then, our panelists took up debate on several questions. Here are some of the most memorable answers:
Question 1: Will the April 1 lithium battery amendments reduce risk in air transport?
Consensus answer: probably not.
Richard raised the point he’s made several times in this blog—that by banning standalone lithium batteries from commercial flights, people in remote areas could be denied life-saving access to medical device replacement batteries.
Leach asked, “What risk is it we’re trying to reduce? There’s never been a recorded incident with batteries that were in compliance.
Brennan said, “If I didn’t believe there was an improvement in safety, I wouldn’t have approved the 30% state-of-charge limit. But I didn’t agree with the ban.”
An audience member who works for a major airline posed this quandary: “Batteries for one of our 787s cost more than $100,000, and the charger costs another $100,000, and we can’t even transport them on our own aircraft.”
Kerchner suggested that safety would be better served by focusing on batteries’ origin than by blanket restrictions on their transport. “Other countries’ battery makers don’t get the same level of inspections that US manufacturers have. For better or for worse we’re heading toward a “whitelist” approach.”
Question 2: Do you have any advice on what the next round of changes to the ICAO Technical Instructions might include?
Consensus answer: more enforcement, less regulations.
“Put us on a whitelist!” said an audience member who works for a medical device company. “Every 31 seconds we implant a lithium battery in someone’s body. We need to make sure we have the right product at the right hospital. Our batteries are safe to be implanted in people’s bodies. How are they not safe for air transport?”
Another audience member—a Dangerous Goods training consultant—said, “How many times in the last ten years have I told clients, ‘The regulations have changed, so what I told you six months ago is no longer accurate.’ After a while I lose credibility. We need to try and not change regulations. If you’re going to make new rules, they need to stay that way for four years.”
Leach added, “The likelihood of a lithium battery starting a fire in a cargo hold is so small that it may well be an acceptable risk. The safest flight is the one that never takes off. We have to factor in a risk of something happening.”
Brennan insisted agencies do not enact needless restrictions. “We’re supposed to be data-driven, so if you don’t have data that back up your proposal I won’t support it.”
But he added, “The big challenge with ICAO is that it is all about aviation and air transport. It’s all internal. They fail to understand there are parties outside air transport. They consider industry’s voice to be ‘lobbying,’ and that’s dangerous.”
An audience member in manufacturing said, “We have been dancing with the devil. At some point a passenger plane will be downed. How will that affect regulations?”
Bob Richard answered, “ValuJet was a non-compliant shipment. That brown box with no markings that contains lithium batteries—that’s what we should be worried about.”
Thanks to everyone who joined us for the 2016 Dangerous Goods Symposium. We hope to see you all again next year!
Make sure your shipments are safe and in full compliance with a full line of solutions from Labelmaster—a full-service provider of goods and services for hazardous materials and Dangerous Goods professionals, shippers, transport operators and EH&S providers.