Seeking Safety for the Most Vulnerable – Escalating Action Against E-Bike Battery Fires
The media increasingly reports lithium-ion battery fires and their devastating consequences. Here, Wayne Mackay, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, at leading charity, Electrical Safety First, explains why legislation to address them is desperately needed - particularly for the protection of vulnerable and marginalised groups - and why the issue is now being taken forward by Yvonne Fovargue MP.
To date, ten deaths, hundreds of injuries, and millions in property damage across the UK, have been caused by lithium-ion battery fires - and are increasing daily.
As demand for electrically powered micromobility, such as e-bikes and e-scooters expands, there has been a corresponding growth in fires from the lithium-ion batteries which power them. In 2022, the e-bike market alone was estimated at £300 million, with double-digit growth forecast for 2024. Yet most people are unaware that a fully charged e-bike battery holds a similar amount of stored energy to six hand grenades, nor that lives can be at risk when charging them at home.
When overheating - through, for example, damage, flawed design, or using a substandard charger - lithium-ion batteries can create fierce, toxic fires. They take hold within seconds and can reach a temperature of over 600 degrees centigrade.
Electrical Safety First developed a draft Bill to address this major fire risk, which is now being taken forward by Yvonne Fovargue MP, Chair of the APPG on Home and Online Electrical Safety, as a Ten Minute Rule Bill.
“This Bill would introduce three key changes to tackle such fires”, explains Ms. Fovargue. “These include third-party approval for e-bikes, e-scooters, and their batteries - as is the case with fireworks - and a temporary ban on ‘universal chargers’ until compatibility is assured. It would also require clearer markings on these batteries, to help prevent fires in general waste. Research shows that this legislation, which is supported by a host of stakeholders, including the National Fire Chiefs Council, is especially important for the most vulnerable in our society.”
Fire does not discriminate but the risk and impact of a fire is highest among vulnerable groups, or those with a ‘protected characteristic'. Our proposals protect everyone but are especially important for these groups. For example, as a key recommendation from the Grenfell Inquiry - mandated personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) for disabled people - has not been established, they are particularly significant for this demographic.
However, deprivation or vulnerability exists in clusters, with acknowledged links between low income, poor accommodation, and health, along with other protected characteristics, such as ethnicity and age. This has enhanced concerns regarding battery fires in tower blocks, where fire can spread rapidly from one household to another.
The expansion of the ‘gig’ economy - i.e. employment without contract and usually low-paid - has popularised the growth in e-micromobility. Various studies have found that such work is disproportionately undertaken by ethnic minorities, with many living in high rises or houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs), and often with young children.
We commissioned research into gig economy workers who used an e-bike or e-scooter for their work. When asked where they charge their vehicle, of the 80% responding, 38% used a communal area, 30% used their hallway, and 14% their bedroom. Charging these vehicles in a confined space anywhere in a home is dangerous but especially in a bedroom or escape route. Yet 27% of respondents charge e-bike batteries when asleep at night.
Additionally, of those who had ‘upgraded’ their pedal-bike into an e-bike using a conversion kit, 70% had done so themselves. Fire and Rescue Services have noted that these kits, often bought online, where substandard and counterfeit items are readily available, present a serious fire risk. As do ‘after market’ chargers bought separately, with almost 40% who purchased one claiming that it had caught fire. It is no surprise that, in a cost of living crisis, low-paid workers will prioritise price, rather than safety.
In the UK, the number of wholly avoidable deaths and destruction from lithium-ion batteries fires is rising rapidly. Our proposals, first outlined in our report, Battery Breakdown offer pragmatic solutions, and our consumer awareness campaigns have generated extensive media coverage - but we need legislation to tackle this issue head-on.
Electrical Safety First is the campaigning UK charity dedicated to preventing deaths, injuries, and fires, caused by electricity. To find out more, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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