Buildings are at risk of ferocious fires caused by lithium-ion batteries

Yaasica Hamilton-Haye is a senior construction solicitor at Devonshires

The use of e-scooters and e-bikes is steadily growing in the UK. It is now a common sight to see riders zipping across pavements and roads. While reducing the number of cars on the road is by no means a bad thing, one unintended consequence has been the growing number of life-threatening fires caused by faulty lithium-ion batteries. In light of this, contractors and designers will need to start working with employers, particularly in relation to high-density residential buildings, to explore whether safe charging and storage areas can be incorporated into the design of new developments, thereby reducing the risks posed by this ever-growing problem.

“The London Fire Brigade has reported being called to an e-bike or e-scooter fire once every two days in 2023 so far”

The risks of lithium-ion batteries, which are a potential fire hazard and are vulnerable to heat, increase with incorrect charging equipment and damage or modification to the batteries. Faulty batteries may lead to explosions and ferocious fires, along with a release of toxic gas.

By way of example, in February, a home was destroyed when the homeowner left the batteries of his e-bike to charge overnight and awoke to an explosion, which caused an inferno.

Three people have already tragically lost their lives this year as a result of such fires, and hundreds of people were injured globally in 2022. A 21-year-old woman died in January this year when a fire caused by an e-bike lithium battery ripped through the flat in minutes while the residents were asleep. Because the e-bike was charging by the door, it also blocked the only safe escape route.

In the capital alone, the London Fire Brigade (LFB) has reported being called to an e-bike or e-scooter fire once every two days in 2023 so far, and the number of fires this year has already topped the 116 related fires recorded in 2022. Worryingly, the LFB’s investigators found that of the 73 e-bike fires occurring up to June this year, 40 per cent were believed to have involved a converted e-bike. It added: “At least 77 per cent are believed to have involved the failure of the bike’s battery [and] at least 41 per cent of the bikes are believed to have been on charge at the time of a fire starting.”

Ensuring building safety

Employers and building owners have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure that people are not exposed to risks to their health and safety. They also have a duty under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 to take such general fire precautions to ensure the safety of employees and other persons, and to ensure that the premises are safe. For high-rise buildings, the relevant Accountable Person is obliged to prevent a building safety risk from materialising, or to mitigate the effect should a risk arise. Helpfully, the LFB has recently published guidance for Responsible Persons in relation to the risks posed by e-scooters and e-bikes.  

Such are the risks, building owners and employers are already getting to grips with the management of these devices in buildings. The ideal solution would be to simply ban them from buildings, just as many transport services have now banned e-scooters and e-bikes from their networks. Quite obviously, this is not a realistic or workable option, and enforcing such a policy would be nigh on impossible.

Therefore, at the very least, the useful guidance from the National Fire Chiefs Council and LFB should be followed. Essentially, building owners and employers should ensure, insofar as they are able to, that residents and staff:

  • Avoid storing/charging devices on escape routes or in communal areas. Safe external storage areas should be provided if possible.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions when charging devices. Batteries should not be charged at night or left charging after being fully charged, and sockets should not be overloaded. Importantly, batteries should not be charged near combustible or flammable materials.
  • Make sure that smoke alarms are fitted in areas where e-bikes or e-scooters are being charged, and ensure they are tested regularly.

The use of e-bikes and e-scooters shows no sign of waning. Building owners and employers should be alive to the serious risks and, where necessary, seek guidance from the relevant fire and rescue service.

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