Safety with Vehicle and Car Batteries
With roadside crimes affecting many motorists, it has become ever more important to be prepared for the road trip, to have our vehicles checked regularly and to avoid the sudden unforeseen stops next to the road.
An automotive battery lasts up to three years, which means around 30% of cars need a battery each year. The battery is an important vehicle component too often neglected by the vehicle owner and driver.
With the necessary care and maintenance, we should be able to ensure with a working battery that our motorists are less likely to get stranded!
The Risks with Car Batteries
What are the contributing factors to the hazards associated with batteries?
Batteries contain sulphuric acid. The electrolyte in a battery is corrosive and extreme care should be taken to avoid spillage or splashing.
Sulphuric Acid is a corrosive and poisonous liquid which will cause painful burns, irritation and scarring to the skin and eyes and could severely damage clothing.
When these fumes are breathed, the lungs are burned from the toxic chemicals present in fumes. Inhalation of fumes will damage mucous membranes and lungs.
Blindness will likely result if this acid contacts the eye. These physical injuries may be irreversible.
Hydrogen and oxygen are produced as a part of the operation of the battery. These gases produce an explosive mixture within the battery and escape through the vents. Hydrogen & oxygen gases are both evolved during battery recharging. These gases may also be emitted at other times, for example, if the battery is moved or shaken.
It ignites easily and can cause a fire or explosion if allowed to accumulate in a small area.
Many modern batteries incorporate a flame arrester but it is still essential to keep any form of ignition well away from the battery. An exploding battery can cause severe injury from flying pieces of container and acid.
Electrical Shock and Burns:
Many of us are aware of this danger because we may have seen sparks fly when jumper cables are attached to a car battery.
An accidental short circuit of battery terminals by a conductive object, such as a metal tool or item of jewellery etc. may generate sufficient heat to cause severe burns, create arcing or cause any metal to melt and splash.
Severe electrical shocks may be received from faulty mains electrical charging equipment and during the recharge of high voltage battery systems or the recharge of a number of batteries connected in series i.e. 5 or more 12V batteries in series = 60V nominal.
Ordinary car batteries only produce 12 volts, so there is an unlikely danger of being shocked. However, batteries can produce hundreds of amps, so never touch a metal object such as a wrench between the positive and negative battery posts to see if the battery will spark. It will, and produce a current similar to a welding arc that may damage the tool, the battery and/or cause the battery to explode!
[Important to note that in Hybrid vehicles and the hybrid battery pack in the back of the vehicle we are dealing with a different scenario of high voltage. It should be dealt with according to the vehicle manufacturer's instruction and with insulated tools and gloves.]
Physical Injury from Weight of the Battery:
Lifting batteries incorrectly may cause strains to the human body and injury to the spine. Batteries, like those used in forklifts, are heavy and require proper material handling equipment to lift them safely.
Spillages not properly contained will cause environmental pollution.
Preventative Safety Measures and Maintenance of Car Batteries
With modern technology batteries offer a better cold starting performance and longer service life than ever before. This is despite the far greater amount of electronic and current consuming equipment found in today’s cars.
Most road users will admit that they seldom care about the condition of the car battery. It is something that we neglect and only considers when our vehicle suddenly fails to start.
With a little bit of care and maintenance, this can be avoided! A common error is to overfill or under-fill a battery with distilled water, which reduces the battery’s lifespan and failure inevitably at the most unexpected moment.
To avoid the inconvenience of a flat battery, it is an appropriate time to have your battery tested if:
- It has been three or more years (two years for stop/start vehicles) since your battery has been replaced
- Your car starts sluggishly or slowly when you turn the ignition or;
- Your lights are dimming noticeably
How can we avoid a discharged or dead battery?
- Have your battery checked before winter.
- Ensure all lights or accessories are turned off when leaving the vehicle.
- Defective dashboard switches for seemingly low current consumers like the glove compartment light or rear wash/wipe should be rectified before they drain the battery.
- Maintain battery fluid to the correct level.
- Regular driving each week or use of an approved battery charger.
- Keep your battery case clean of dirt and grease.
- Ensure battery terminals and posts are cleaned regularly.
- Have your engine serviced regularly as poor engine condition can overload the battery.
- Have the charge rate of your alternator checked at every service.
- The condition and correct tension of the V-belt connecting the engine to the alternator should be checked to prevent any slippage.
Do not try to renovate or repair a damaged battery. This should only be carried out by suitably trained personnel with appropriate facilities and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.
Before performing any maintenance or repair on a battery, ventilate the battery compartment to dissipate any accumulations of gases. When a battery terminal becomes loose and can be twisted, ventilate the battery compartment for a few minutes prior to tightening any of the terminals.
Safely working with Batteries
It is important that only trained personnel work on a battery and that they know and observe the safety precautions. In this section, we will discuss the usual safety procedures when handling and working with batteries and stay clear of the modern hybrid batteries that require professional attention.
- Get to know the procedures to be followed when you attempt to charge or test a battery or jump start a vehicle.
- Always handle batteries with care and never overfill with acid.
- Always store batteries upright.
- Never allow children access to a battery.
- Batteries should always be installed by a qualified professional.
- Always work in a well-ventilated area.
- The manufacturer’s instructions must be followed when any equipment such as a charger or tester is used.
- Follow the manufacturer's instructions for testing, jumping, installing, discharging, charging, equalising and maintaining batteries.
- Always remove metal objects from hands, wrists & neck e.g. rings, bracelets, watches & necklaces.
- Always use correct lifting procedures to minimise strain to the human body.
- Always use lifting handle or lifting ledges if available on the battery.
- Do not lean over the battery when charging, testing, ‘jump starting’, connecting or disconnecting.
- Do not break ‘live’ circuits at the terminals of the battery as this invariably causes a spark to be produced at the point where the circuit is broken.
- Keep flames or sparks away from the battery always. Do not smoke near batteries.
- Never place tools or metal objects near to or on top of a battery.
- Avoid dropping tools across the terminals and use insulated spanners.
- Ensure that the charger cable clamps or ‘jump start’ leads are in good order and the connections are good. A poor connection can cause an electrical arc which can ignite the hydrogen gas and cause an explosion.
- Recharging should be done only in a location specifically designed for that purpose – should have proper ventilation, be a “non-smoking” area with fire protection and necessary emergency equipment.
- Do not attempt to jump start or recharge a frozen battery. Remove the battery from the vehicle, bring it into a warm room and let it thaw before charging or testing.
Personal Protective Equipment
- When working with batteries, prevent exposure by wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Never attempt to handle car batteries with bare hands. Always use sufficient protective clothing and accessories such as gloves and safety glasses when checking or changing batteries.
- When batteries are being charged, explosive gases are produced. Heat and sparks can ignite these gases causing a fire or explosion.
- All smoking, open flames, and spark producing items such as grinders, welders, or other electrical equipment, should be kept well clear of batteries.
- Personal protective equipment could include Goggles, a face shield, rubber gloves and a rubber Metallic objects should not be placed on top of the battery
Do not let your work harm the Environment!
- Find out about local restrictions and guidelines about chemical waste disposal.
- If spills occur, do not dispose of battery residue by dumping it in the soil or water since this will cause contamination. Spills can also be neutralised using alkali-based chemicals and powders such as soda ash.
- All spent batteries and waste arising from spillages and fires must be disposed of in conformance with the Environmental Protection Laws, Special Waste Regulations and Environmental Protection Regulations.
- Always consider the worst-case scenarios when going on the road!
- Know your Emergency numbers in the event of a breakdown.
- Most road side assistance services will be fully prepared and equipped to assist in the event of battery failure.
- Services such as the AA provide a qualified Battery Technician who will diagnose the problem on arrival. Each vehicle of their vehicles carries a unique high tech portable device that produces a complete diagnosis of a vehicle’s battery and charging system (this is a free service to AA Members). This device is used to identify the type of battery needed.
How to Charge a Vehicle
- The battery should always be charged in a well-ventilated area.
- Always follow the charger manufacturer’s instructions.
- Make sure the vehicles are not touching and that the ignition in both vehicles is turned off. Ensure both vehicles are in neutral or “park”.
- Make sure that the charger is switched off before connecting to the battery.
- Connect the charger leads to the battery terminals with the red positive (+) lead to the positive terminal and the black or blue negative (-) lead to the negative terminal.
- Ensure all connections are tight and away from moving or rotating components.
- Start the engine of the vehicle with the “good” battery and allow to run for one minute.
- Start the engine of the vehicle with the “flat” battery and allow to run for at least one minute.
- Stop the engine of the vehicle with the “good” battery.
- Remove the cables in the opposite order keeping them well away from any moving or rotating components on the vehicle.
- Always disconnect the negative (black) terminal connector before connecting or removing the positive (red) terminal connector. If the wrench touches the grounded surface while tightening the positive terminal, no arc will occur. Similarly, when installing the negative terminal connector, no arc will occur since the equipment frame is common with the negative.
[Exercise care in connecting the battery charger to the battery. Connecting the wrong polarity (red/+ to black/-) may cause a short-circuit which could result in an explosion of the battery. Connect red/+ to red/+ and black/- to black/- and always follow the charger’s manufacturer’s operating instructions.]
Response to Battery Related Incidents and Injuries
According to PREVENT BLINDNESS AMERICA, in 2003 nearly 6,000 motorists suffered serious eye injuries from working around car batteries.
How should we Respond to Emergencies?
- If acid is spilled onto clothing or the skin it should be neutralised immediately.
- Soak the affected area with copious amounts of clean water, remove any contaminated clothing and seek medical attention if irritation persists.
- We can also use a solution of baking soda or household ammonia and water and then rinse using clean water.
- If acid enters the eye, force the eye open and flood with cool, clean water for approximately 10-15 minutes and seek medical attention.
- If acid is swallowed, drink large quantities of water or milk. Follow with milk of magnesia.
- Obtain medical advice as soon as possible. Do not encourage vomiting.
- Electrolyte spilled on the surface of the car should be neutralised and rinsed with clean water.
- In the event of suffering burns apply a dry sterile dressing and seek medical treatment.
- When someone has suffered electric shock we need to approach a person with care. If the individual is clear of the conductor then, with caution, switch off equipment or break the current.
- If the individual is still attached to the conductor do not touch with bare hands. If possible use a suitable insulating material e.g. wood, rubber, plastic or rolled paper, to detach the conductor from the victim.
- If necessary, summon assistance then give artificial respiration until it arrives.
- In the event of Inhalation of gases – Remove to fresh air. If the victim is not breathing give artificial respiration.
In the event of Spillages:
- Treat spillages only when wearing your personal protective equipment.
- Stop the leakage!
- For small spillages wash away with large quantities of water.
- Dam acid and prevent entry into drains, waterway & sewers.
- Clean up using the absorbent material.
- For larger volumes dispose of in suitable acid resistant containers.
- Have an emergency kit with corrosion-resistant plastic tools and materials to absorb acid liquids.
- Baking soda is commonly used to neutralise electrolyte spills.
- Dispose of spill material as hazardous material.
- All workers should know the emergency procedures and how to operate fire extinguishers properly.