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Lift trucks: Battery room safety tips

Creating a safe battery storage area for your lift truck batteries is just as important as any other aspect of lift truck safety.
October 27, 2010

By James P. Kaletta, CSP

Creating a safe battery storage area for your lift truck batteries is just as important as any other aspect of lift truck safety. But battery rooms can be easily overlooked as companies grow, remodel or experience other operating changes.

Consider that many companies have switched from propane-powered lift trucks to battery-powered lift trucks. Common reasons for making this change include battery innovations, increased lifting capacity and a desire to avoid propane’s potential for carbon monoxide emissions.

On the other hand, lift truck batteries often weigh 1,000 pounds or more, so making this switch requires companies to build or retrofit battery charging and storage areas. Battery racks, chargers, changers, eye wash stations, showers and exhaust systems to vent the gases produced during the charging process are all key components of a safe battery room.

Batteries, racks and chargers
Always secure a battery prior to moving or exchanging it. This normally is accomplished using manual stops and/or powered rollers on the battery changer to prevent the battery from falling off the changer. 

Batteries also need to be properly maintained. This means they should be clean, properly charged and allowed to cool after charging. Batteries must also include cables in good repair and contain the correct fluid levels. Remember: Only pour acid into water. NEVER pour water into acid.

Don’t allow anyone who has not been properly trained to attempt to service a battery. Be sure the battery servicing area is clean, uncluttered and free of ignition sources. The proper PPE and nonconductive tools are must-haves, too.

Battery racks should be frequently inspected for damage, corrosion, weld/fastener quality and roller functionality. All stops must be available and functional.  And, when you add to your fleet, verify that any new batteries do not exceed the capacity of the rack, rollers or changers.

Chargers are also critical components for a battery-powered fleet of vehicles. Inspect them prior to each use and run a thorough inspection at least monthly. Consult your manufacturer’s operations manual for more details. Make sure the charger is properly grounded, whether it’s hard-wired or uses a cord and plug, to reduce the chance of shock, electrocution or arcing.  Always consult your operations manual before conducting any service, repair or cleaning of your charger. 

Chargers should always be locked out prior to servicing. Always verify that the unit does not have any capacitors that store electrical power. If your unit does have capacitors, follow the manufacturer’s directions for de-energizing the capacitor before beginning any work on the charger. Units with capacitors should be identified in your lockout/tagout machine-specific procedures and the de-energizing process should be explained there. Or you can direct employees to your electrical safe work practices program. Allow only trained and qualified employees to work on chargers.

PPE and tools
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is very important when working with batteries, including:
• Approved face shield and goggles
• Approved acid-resistive gloves with gauntlets of at least 6 to 8 inches
• Approved full-length rubber apron
• Slip- and acid-resistive footwear with protected toe
• Nonconductive tools, including scrapers, mops and brushes
• Adequate number of ABC fire extinguishers that are properly inspected/maintained
• Adequate amount of neutralizer
A best practice: Use a rolling Plexiglas barrier for the powered industrial truck operator to stand behind to protect him from any acid splatter. And, remember to keep all required PPE clean, and store it properly. These simple steps protect the equipment and the person wearing it.

Air quality
The battery charging process produces gases, including hydrogen, that may create adverse exposures for employees. But air quality is commonly overlooked in the distribution environment, especially in older facilities or those whose growth has outpaced their safety function. Older facilities may lack exhaust systems and facilities that have added battery-powered vehicles may now they need one since they have increased their charging requirements.

The best way to determine your air quality and if you need an exhaust system is to have a certified industrial hygienist conduct air monitoring. (Hint: If you retain a CIH, consider how cost effective it would be to have him or her do additional work like noise monitoring while already at your facility.)

Eye wash and shower
An eye wash/shower system is vital in case any employee comes in contact with battery acid. The system should easily accessible and be as close as possible to the work area without causing any adverse exposure. OSHA states in 1910.151(c): “Where the eyes or body of any person may be exposed to injurious corrosive materials, suitable facilities for quick drenching or flushing of the eyes and body shall be provided within the work area for immediate emergency use.” A best practice is to have fixed-pipe eye wash/showers system with a drain, as compared to relying on gravity-fed units.

From my experience, these systems are often not easily accessible, dirty and/or have not been regularly inspected and tested. I have also seen systems located too close to the batteries/chargers, posing a potential shock or electrocution hazard to the person using it and others in the immediate area.

Both ANSI Z358.1 and OSHA in numerous standards list the following as some key items pertaining to eye washes and showers:
1. Unobstructed distance: ANSI states the eye wash stations shall be located in an area that requires no more than 10 seconds to reach—that’s approximately 50 feet. If it is a high hazard, consult a medical professional to determine the appropriate distance for harsh acids and caustics (high hazard=closer distance).
2. Eye wash water flow:  3 gallons per minute for at least 15 minutes.
3. Water temperature: Tepid, which is defined as 60ºF to 100ºF.
4. Plumbed eye wash/shower inspection: The station should be activated weekly to verify proper operation and tested annually. All inspections, activations and testing shall be documented and maintained on file.
5. Identification: The location of the eye wash station should be in a well-lit area and identified with a signage.
6. Training: All employees who might be exposed to a chemical splash should be trained in the use of the equipment.

Automated battery changers (walkies/riders)
When dealing with automated walking/riding battery changers, remember to have your employees conduct pre-use inspections and to follow the manufacturer’s maintenance requirements.  All employees who use the changer must be trained and evaluated for safe operating skills.

If your facility is large enough, an automated riding battery changer makes a nice addition. These are normally found in facilities with large powered industrial truck fleets where the battery racks have multiple levels. Some items to evaluate on your unit are:
• Does it have a Plexiglas shield to protect the operator from battery acid?
• Is the fall protection adequate (top rail, mid rail and toe board)?
• Does it have a gate to the operator’s compartment?
• Is a safety switch installed on the gate so the unit will not operate if the circuit is open? 

A best practice for changers that rise multiple levels is to require the operator to use a positioning tether and belt to ensure the operator stays within the compartment. These rider units also may run on a track. If so, evaluate whether the track obstructs access to the emergency eye wash/shower. 

No matter which type of unit you have, you will need to develop written machine-specific lockout/tagout procedure so the units can be serviced and maintained. If you service the changer in a raised position, have sufficient blocking devices available. Also, if you are conducting any type of electrical service or repair, ensure your maintenance employee follows your electrical safe work practice requirements (consult your owner’s manual). Lastly, if you are going to service, maintain or repair the unit, verify that your employees have the proper training and equipment to do so safely.

Training
Lift truck operators and employees who change batteries should receive formal documented initial, periodic and annual training per OSHA 1910.178, Powered Industrial Trucks. The training should—at a minimum—include:
• Operator and changer responsibilities,
• Required procedures/job tasks,
• Inspection requirements,
• Care and storage of personal protective equipment, and
• Safe work practices.
Remember to review the job task of who is responsible for properly removing and replacing the battery retention plate and when. This activity is critical to preventing battery ejections.

James P. Kaletta, CSP, is senior vice president of FleetRisk Advisors, a safety consultancy specializing in transportation and logistics. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 773-935-8326.


6 Top Tips for Battery Rooms

1. Verify that your battery storage area includes these key components: Battery racks, chargers, changers, eye wash stations, showers and exhaust systems.
2. Batteries, racks and chargers should be inspected regularly and maintained according to the manufacturers’ instructions. Only properly trained employees should work on any equipment.
3. Proper personal protective equipment and tools are a must in the battery environment, including acid-resistive face shield, goggles, gloves and apron and nonconductive tools.
4. The battery charging process produces gases that may create adverse exposures for employees, so consider hiring a certified industrial hygienist to assess whether your facility needs an exhaust system.
5. You must supply an eye wash/shower system near battery-related work areas. ANSI Z358.1 specifies location, water capacity, inspection schedules and more.
6. OSHA 1910.178 requires that all employees who operate lift trucks or change batteries must receive formal documented initial and periodic training thereafter.

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