OSHA Working to Clear Confusion on Lithium Ion Batteries

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By Sam Pearson

Sept. 28 — Recent reports of lithium-ion batteries catching fire on Samsung Group mobile phones and other electronic devices have companies concerned if the batteries require warning labels under Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, an agency official said Sept. 27.

Speaking at the Society for Chemical Hazard Communication meeting in Arlington, Va., Sven Rundman, a supervisory industrial hygienist at OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs, said the agency has fielded multiple inquiries from companies on the issue.

Samsung launched a global recall earlier this month of at least 2.5 million of its Galaxy Note 7 smartphones, saying their lithium ion batteries posed an explosion risk.

“We’ve gotten a couple letters, one from the U.S. and one from international,” Rundman said.

Rundman said companies want to verify if lithium ion batteries are included under the hazard communication standard or if they are classified as articles. If the batteries are covered, companies that store them in the workplace could be subject to enforcement action if they don’t contain proper warning labels.

However, if lithium ion batteries are considered articles, they wouldn’t be subject to the hazard communication standard. Under the standard, articles are defined as “a manufactured item” that has functions dependent upon its shape or design and which doesn’t release “more than very small quantities... of a hazardous chemical” and also doesn’t pose a physical or health hazard to employees.

“We’re taking a global look at this information, and we’ll provide information as we can as soon as possible,” Rundman said.

Companies Confused, Concerned

The recent activity isn’t the first time OSHA has faced scrutiny from companies over the batteries.

In December 2015, Thomas Galassi, OSHA’s director of the Directorate of Enforcement Programs, in a letter to Labelmaster Services Inc. said that the batteries are not considered an article. Rather, the letter said that “lead acid batteries cannot be considered articles because they have the potential to leak, spill, break and emit hydrogen, which could result in a fire or explosion upon ignition.”

OSHA did not release the letter, but Labelmaster posted it on its corporate website.

Labelmaster had told OSHA companies it represents were experiencing delays because firms they contract with were asking for safety data sheets for the batteries.

The earlier interpretation “has major implications for the electronics industry and its customers” if OSHA does not reverse it, wrote Roger Miksad, an associate at the law firm Wiley Rein LLP, in a blog post in January.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Pearson in Washington at spearson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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