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Electric Vehicle Fires Pose a High Workplace Injury Risk

In Australia, there has been a rapid increase in electric vehicle sales. However, electric car fires pose a substantial work injury risk to first responders like firefighters and other emergency workers who must attend to road accidents.
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From Zero to Inferno: Why Electric Car Fires Are a High Risk for First Responder Work Injuries and Compensation

Electric car fires pose a substantial work injury risk to first responders like firefighters and other emergency workers who must attend to road accidents.


As the world heats up and countries move to lower carbon emissions, the popularity of electric cars and hybrid vehicles has boomed due to their low carbon emissions and economic and environmental benefits.
Most Australians consider battery-powered vehicles safer than conventional vehicles because they do not have a fuel tank that can explode during a road accident. However, electric cars pose a substantial risk when involved in a traffic accident or if the battery is over-charged.


This article explores why electric vehicle fires are riskier than you think, including for first responder work injuries.

The Rise of Electric Cars

Electric car sales are surging as more people use renewable energy sources to lessen their environmental impact. Consequently, sales of electric vehicles have exploded over the past ten years, with China and other nations driving global EV adoption. In 2020 alone, electric cars accounted for over 4% of all new car sales worldwide, with this trend likely to escalate.


As with any emerging technology, battery-powered vehicles have some risks. One of the most concerning is the potential for electric car fires. While various factors cause these fires, such as faulty batteries or overcharging, they have happened more frequently this decade, posing a severe safety threat.

What are the Benefits of Electric Cars?

Electric cars offer several benefits that many people find irresistible, like environmental sustainability, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved performance, and reduced fuel costs. Hence, low-emission cars are becoming an increasingly popular transportation option for many Australians.

  1. Environmental Sustainability: The main advantage of electric cars is their environmental sustainability. Electric-powered vehicles can reduce emissions and improve ecological preservation by running on electricity rather than gasoline. They don’t emit emissions directly, so they don’t
  2. Low Noise: Electric vehicles are significantly quieter than gas-powered alternatives.
  3. Improved Air Quality: Electric motor vehicles can drastically improve local air quality, which is particularly important in large cities with higher traffic congestion levels.

How Do Electric Car Batteries Work?

Electric car batteries typically consist of several connected lithium-ion cells. Electricity from an outside source—typically a wall outlet or charging station—is used to charge the cells, which are then stored in the battery to power the car’s electric motor.

These batteries can withstand extreme temperatures, vibrations, and shocks. Furthermore, electric vehicles have sophisticated battery protection control systems that manage factors like temperature, charge level, and discharge rate.

Electric Car Fires: A Hidden Danger for Workplace Injuries

Electric car fires are a hidden danger for workplace injuries, and first responders (including firefighters, police, and paramedics) must be aware of the hidden risks. Often, emergency workers risk their lives when they attend to road accident scenes involving vehicle-related thermal events, like electric vehicle battery fires.

One of the most significant dangers of electric vehicles is the potential for fire if their large battery packs are damaged or overcharged. Lithium batteries are highly combustible, and when their internal temperature reaches a certain level, they can ignite, resulting in an uncontrolled vehicle fire.

Electric cars can catch fire when they are involved in a traffic collision or battery failure. Generally, battery blazes are more difficult to extinguish than gasoline fires. Hence, vehicle combustion poses a severe workplace safety risk for emergency workers in Australia because it often releases toxic gases and fumes that make breathing difficult for first responders.

What are the Health Dangers of Lithium-ion Car Batteries?

Lithium-ion car batteries present particular health dangers. Even though the vehicle battery pack is designed to control the flow of electricity (ensuring that the motor receives the correct amount), in certain circumstances, the electric car battery pack can overheat and catch fire, causing concerns about combustion potential.

Furthermore, these types of batteries pose a potential health danger to emergency responders like police, ambulances, and paramedics. This personal injury hazard comes from the electrolytes and other battery chemicals that can produce toxic fumes when heated or exposed to fire.

In addition, lithium-ion phosphate batteries are ideal for use in low-emission vehicles because of their high energy density, which enables them to store significant amounts of energy in a small space. However, this can also be a work injury risk for emergency workers, as these batteries are highly flammable and can cause severe fires when not adequately controlled and stored.

In Australia, there have been several reports of electric vehicle fires due to malfunctioning electric car batteries or charging systems, leading some to question their safety and the occupational safety risk posed to emergency workers.

How Do Electric Car Fires Start?

Electric car fires typically start when a battery issue or a broken charging system causes excessive current to flow through the battery, causing cells to overheat. As a result of this reaction, the battery pack experiences thermal runaway, which causes combustible materials to ignite. In some instances, the fire might also engulf the battery pack, creating a more dangerous situation. Additionally, electric vehicles can combust by overheating the car’s battery.

Generally, car battery overheating occurs when used for long periods or when overcharged. An electric vehicle’s batteries are typically lithium-ion or lead-acid and are subject to thermal runaway, a process where the battery’s temperature increases beyond its safe limits. A thermal event happens when an internal or external fault causes a rapid increase in temperature and leads to an uncontrolled release of energy, resulting in an increase in temperature within the battery pack. In severe cases, this can result in a fire or explosion, which requires many litres of water to extinguish.

What Happens in an Electric Vehicle Fire?

When an electric vehicle catches fire, it is usually due to a manufacturing defect or a damaged battery. Sometimes, the electrical system may need to be better configured, or the overcharging of the batteries causes a combustion event.

Electric car fires can be devastating, and knowing the potential risks of these incidents is crucial to stopping them from happening. In some cases, dodgy electrical system configuration or battery overcharging can result in fire. This combustion occurs because electricity passing through an electric vehicle battery at an excessive voltage can trigger a short circuit and fire. Due to the large amount of energy stored in an electric car’s battery, the resulting fire can be hazardous to people whose job is to extinguish it.

What are the Challenges of Extinguishing Electric Car Fires?

Extinguishing electric car fires is more difficult because of flammable materials and toxic fumes released when the battery overheats or explodes. Lithium-ion batteries contain electrolytes and other chemicals and release poisonous fumes when heated or exposed to flames. Furthermore, motor vehicle fires can be difficult to extinguish because of the high energy density of the batteries. The large amount of stored energy in the battery pack has the potential to ignite a fierce fire that is harder to extinguish than one in a gasoline-powered automobile.

In addition, electric cars use different materials and have fewer components than gasoline-powered vehicles, making it more difficult for firefighters to identify and extinguish.

Why Electric Car Fires are a Greater Work Injury Risk for First Responders

Electric car fires present unique risks for first responders responsible for extinguishing flames, rescuing victims, and cleaning up the accident scene. So, to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves and others, emergency responders must be aware of the risks associated with the combustion of electric cars.

1. Risk of Electric Shock

High-voltage batteries in electric vehicles carry a severe risk of electric shock injury. Emergency personnel must avoid touching any exposed wires or electrical parts in the event of a traffic accident. Before beginning rescue or firefighting operations, they should isolate the power source of the batteries using specialised tools and safety equipment.

2. Risk of Thermal Runaway

Thermal runaway is a process where an increase in temperature triggers a chemical reaction in the battery cells, leading to a self-contained chain reaction that causes lithium-ion battery fires. Typically, a collision or battery failure can cause a thermal runaway, leading to an uncontrollable blaze that can be particularly difficult to extinguish.

3. Risk of Toxic Fumes

When an electric vehicle burns, it typically emits high amounts of toxic gases and fumes, which is a risk to the health of emergency responders. Lithium batteries contain electrolytes and other chemicals that can produce harmful gases when heated or exposed to flames. Consequently, anyone attending the accident scene must use respiratory protection and evacuate the area if they suspect toxic or dangerous fumes.

How to Protect First Responders

The following are some of the steps that first responders can take to protect themselves and others:

1. Identify Electric Vehicles

First responders must receive training on the various electric vehicle types and their specific hazards. Battery-powered cars have high-voltage cables, a battery pack, and other components different from petrol-powered vehicles. Thus, maintaining a safe workplace requires considering the potential risks associated with each type of car.

2. Use Specialised Tools and Protective Gear

First responders need specialised equipment and protective clothing when responding to electric vehicle fires. Insulated gloves, voltage detectors, and battery disconnect tools are some of the tools they can use to safely isolate the power source of the battery. Accident emergency workers can protect themselves from toxic fumes and other dangers by wearing protective equipment such as fire-resistant clothing, respiratory protection, and eye protection.

What are the Common Types of First Responder Work Injuries?

Given the rise of electric cars, fire safety has become a growing concern for emergency personnel. While combustion engine cars with gas tanks have an established history of fire response, hybrid and electric vehicles present unique challenges due to their battery technology and complex wiring. As such, firefighters and rescue workers should know the potential dangers of EV fires to protect themselves from injury.

First responders risk being injured when responding to electric car fires by electric shock, thermal runaway, and the release of toxic chemicals. In addition, the materials used in electric vehicles are often unfamiliar to emergency workers, so they need to learn the risks. Lack of training can lead to accidents or injuries due to improper handling or lack of protective gear, including:

1. Electric Shock Injuries: First responders can suffer an electric shock if they are not careful when handling high-voltage batteries or exposed power sources.

2. Severe Burn Injuries: Firefighters and rescue workers can suffer significant burns from flame exposure, hot gases, and molten metals.

3. Respiratory injuries: Respiratory problems may result from prolonged exposure to toxic fumes. When a battery-powered car burns, it can release a lot of smoke that is hazardous to human health because it contains toxic materials and gases. The most common toxins released by electric vehicle fires are carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and hydrocarbons. Exposure to these compounds can have harmful side effects like eye irritation, respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, and even cancer.

How to Protect First Responders

New safety precautions and firefighting techniques are necessary to safeguard emergency personnel’s health and safety due to the difficulties associated with installing electric vehicle fires. These include:

1. First responder education and training

First responders are frequently the first to arrive at the scene of an accident involving electric cars, so they must have a basic understanding of how and why these vehicles can combust. Hence, emergency personnel should have specialised education and training on the risks of e-vehicle fires, like overheating the battery compartment, short-circuiting, and improper charging or battery storage.

2. Proper safety gear and equipment

First responders should only wear the proper gear to an electric vehicle fire scene. This equipment includes personal protective equipment (PPE) like fire-resistant clothing, helmets, and specialised fire extinguisher tools.

3. Standard operating processes when responding to electric car accidents

In Australia, emergency responders and other personnel should establish standard operating procedures (SOPs) specific to electric car accidents to ensure the safety of everyone involved and protect against fire risks.

4. Coordination between electric car manufacturers and emergency workers

Electric car manufacturers and car fire emergency workers work closely to ensure the safe and effective handling of any potential accident. These vehicles contain high-voltage batteries and other electrical components that call for battery safety and other specialised safety procedures. Hence, these two groups must understand the unique challenges presented during a fire.

Conclusion

Electric car fires pose a significant work safety risk for first responders. Understanding the unique characteristics of electric cars and the dangers of lithium-ion batteries is essential to protecting the safety of emergency workers.

If you have been injured in a work accident, particularly when attending an e-vehicle fire, please get effective legal advice from a workplace injury lawyer. Most personal injury law firms provide no-win, no-fee legal funding and a free case assessment for new clients.

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