Modern Lithium Battery Transport: Reducing Risks and Improving Safety with Next-Generation Packaging

Contributed Commentary By Pia Jala, Vice President, Operations, Labelmaster

July 12, 2018 | Countless goods classified as hazardous or dangerous are manufactured and shipped every day. And with modern technologies advancing at an exponential rate, one item in particular has taken center stage when it comes to packaging and transport concerns—lithium batteries.

In fact, these batteries (which power many things, from cell phones to laptops and digital cameras) pose such a fire risk that strident restrictions—from commercial aircraft bans to state-of-charge rules and more—have been imposed regarding shipping of this “dangerous good.” This includes the relatively recent UN Transportation Testing (UN/DOT 38.3) regulation, which tests a battery or device’s ability to cope with extreme temperatures, high altitudes, and other system jolts to ascertain if they are safe to transport.

The existence of these ever-increasing restrictions and regulations contribute to an increasingly complex web of mandates that manufacturers must successfully navigate to merely continue with normal business operations. That’s why it’s no surprise that the creation of new laws and regulations holds a place among the top ten disruptions today’s business professionals face.

So, given today’s stricter rules and harsher noncompliance penalties when it comes to lithium battery shipments, what can those who manufacture and distribute lithium batteries (and the technologies that rely on them) do to make transportation safer? One major step is to focus on the packaging itself, not simply what goes inside it.

The “Power” of Packaging Improvements

While compliance restrictions exist around the shipping of dangerous goods, including lithium batteries, even those that follow these guidelines to the letter may still run up against issues. Why? Because the unexpected can—and often does—happen. What if a battery is damaged on its journey to its final destination? Or what if a product with a lithium battery is involved in a recall? How can manufacturers better prepare for situations like these? The answer: by using a better box.

Traditional cardboard boxes have been used for decades. But what worked in the past can be detrimental to today’s (and future) operations. Run-of-the-mill boxes can easily catch fire. If a lithium battery ignites inside one, the box itself can act as a catalyst to quickly spread the blaze beyond the box and into whatever setting it’s in—be it a truck, warehouse, retail store or somewhere else. That’s why shipments of lithium batteries, or devices powered by them, require time-intensive procedures involving exact specifications for the labels that go on the box and fire-inhibiting materials that must go inside the box (e.g. liners, gels and other fillers that are fire retardant).

But what if the traditional cardboard box was reengineered so that instead of promoting a fire, it safeguarded against it? And what if all parties involved in the supply chain—from OEMs down to the consumer—focused on the evolution of packaging as a way to vastly improve safety?

Smarter Packaging = Safer Battery Handling & Shipping

Fortunately, just as battery technology has advanced, so too has packaging technology. By investing in next-generation packaging, battery and device manufacturers can up the protection quotient while improving their bottom line. These next-generation packaging materials are engineered specifically to provide a thermal barrier for the transportation and storage of these products. In fact, today’s modern packaging options now provide improved flame retardance/arrestment, thermal management, pressure management, blast containment, and gas and smoke filtration—making them ideal for battery transport. That means that, in many cases, manufacturers can eliminate the need for gel packs, beads, liners, pellets and fillers in the products they ship, making the transport of lithium-related items safer, easier and more cost-effective than ever before.

Modern, redesigned boxes can streamline the shipping process and improve regulatory compliance. But for lithium battery manufacturers and those who create devices that use them, investing in next-generation packaging can have a significant—and positive—impact on even more facets of the business:

Improved Safety: Fire ranks as one of the top ten threats business professionals are both concerned about, and which they actually encounter. In addition, business disruptions due to health and safety incidents also rank in the top ten1. And in 2014, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that $700B in annual costs resulted from deaths, injuries, and property damage attributable to faulty products—imagine how much that total has likely risen in recent years as the popularity of lithium battery-powered technology has grown. The latest packaging can help mitigate the potential for an adverse safety or shipping incident, while better protecting all those who handle packaged lithium batteries and related items.

Product Recall Preparedness: The impacts of a product recall are devastating enough without adding in the potential for an incident while the product is being shipped back to the manufacturer. Consider this: following a product recall, 55% of consumers would temporarily use a different brand, nearly 15% wouldn’t buy that particular recalled product again, and 21% wouldn’t buy any brand associated with the manufacturer. In addition, the average cost of a recall is $10 million for consumer product companies, excluding brand damages or lost sales2. Not only can next-generation packaging help streamline the handling of a recall—it can also help prevent additional (and more costly) incidents, accidents, and exposures as the product makes its return journey.

Reduced Supply Chain Disruption: Whether you manufacture or distribute lithium battery-reliant products, time is money and the ability to keep shipments moving is paramount to business success. Consider this: supply chain and transport network disruptions rank among the top ten threats that business professionals are both concerned about and actually experiencing in 20181. If a dangerous goods shipment (under which lithium batteries are categorized) fails to meet hazmat compliance regulations, or if a dangerous battery-related incident halts transportation in its tracks, the cost of lost time, compliance fines and possible negative press could be significant. Manufacturers and distributors can help guard against unplanned downtime and stalled shipments by investing in safer, upgraded packaging.

Be Selective About Your Packaging Solution Provider

Advanced, next-generation packaging can have a significant impact on an organization. But before making the leap into a modern packaging investment, it’s important to evaluate your existing business platform and consider which solution would work best to support your goals and bottom line. Ask yourself:

  1. Is the solution straightforward enough for employees along the entire supply chain to use correctly?
  2. Has the solution been comprehensively tested and thoroughly vetted?
  3. Does the solution adhere to the most recent hazmat shipping requirements and compliance mandates?

The popularity of lithium batteries and battery-powered devices will continue to rise. And even more technology advancements (with associated fire risks) will continue to be developed. With the growth in the manufacturing, distribution, and shipment of these “dangerous goods,” the industry is likely to encounter emerging shipping challenges and increasingly complex regulations alike. Those who take the initiative to get ahead of the curve when it comes to the adoption of innovative packaging will reduce their risks involved with transporting lithium battery-powered items. In addition, they’ll position themselves to take further advantage of related opportunities to streamline shipping, tracking and supply chain visibility via RFID and other next-gen technologies.

Pia Jala is vice president of operations for Labelmaster, where she works with clients to develop tailored solutions for safe and efficient transportation of dangerous goods. Since 2007, she has helped clients in diverse industries with issues ranging from rapid mediation of regulatory actions to complete overhauls of dangerous goods programs. Prior to her current position at Labelmaster, Jala was the global manager of dangerous goods for Atlas Air and Polar Air Cargo. She is actively involved in industry organizations related to dangerous goods transport and participates in COSTHA regulatory and reverse logistics panel, Dangerous Goods Advisory Council (DGAC), The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA), and Air Forwarders Association (AFA). She can be reached at