Safety Risks For Volunteers Collecting Lead Acid Batteries for Recycling
Many Social Clubs, Sporting Clubs Clubs and Schools are achieving good fund raising results by collecting and recycling used lead acid (ie car batteries). However, before undertaking these activities, all volunteers need to be made aware of the risks involved and suitable controls should be implemented to prevent serious harm.
The potential hazards of lead acid batteries are:
The exposure for a person handling a single lead acid battery would be relatively low. However, a few volunteers are involved in the collection of a large number of batteries over a long period then exposures to lead could potentially be moderate to high
The lead acid battery can comprises up to 75% lead or lead compounds which poses both acute and chronic exposure hazards. The term acute is used to describe symptoms of exposure to a chemical that are short and relatively severe. Chronic symptoms are those that develop over a longer period. Overexposure to a hazardous substance may have both long and short term effects (acute and chronic). The lead acid battery could contain up to 35% sulphuric acid which is a strong corrosive and can also cause acute and chronic systems in people exposed. Other chronic hazard chemicals which could be present in some batteries in smaller proportions include: antimony, arsenic and calcium.
Exposure to Lead and Sulphuric Acid
Exposure may occur if a sealed battery is damaged or tipped over and is the result of coming into contact with either lead or sulphuric acid. As mentioned above, the exposure may be either acute or chronic.
Lead from a battery may enter a person’s system via ingestion (swallowing/eating) or inhalation (breathing in). Details regarding symptoms and health effects of lead exposure can be found here: http://www.lead.org.au/fs/fst7.html
Chronic overexposure to sulphuric acid may result in erosion of teeth and inflammation of the nose, throat and bronchial tubes as a result of inhalation. Acute overexposure may result in severe burns to eyes, corneal damage and possible blindness. This type of overexposure usually occurs as a result of physical contact between the eye and the electrolyte. Contact between the skin and sulphuric acid may also cause severe irritation, burns and ulceration. Inhalation may cause respiratory irritation and inflammation of the bronchial membranes. Swallowing of sulphuric acid may produce severe burns and ulceration in the mouth, throat, oesophagus and stomach. Kidney and intestinal tract damage may also occur as a result of ingestion.
The reaction between the lead and the sulphuric acid electrolyte produces hydrogen, a highly explosive gas, and easily ignited by flame or spark, even a cigarette.
The voltage produced by a lead acid battery is low and insufficient to cause electrocution. However, these batteries are able to produce extremely high current. If the two terminals of a lead acid battery are shorted by a metal object then a spark will result and this could ignite any unvented hydrogen gas. The metal object will become extremely hot and even melt instantly, depending on it’s size. The result could be severe burns to anyone holding that object and possibly a fire if molten metal were to fall upon combustible material.
Lead acid batteries are heavy! An average car battery is around 15kg, 4WD or truck – 25kg, earthmoving equipment – over 40kg. The weight and its effects on the body are exacerbated by:
- Batteries don’t normally have adequate carry handles and may be slippery from grease or oil
- They won’t always be held close to the body for fear of acid burns, bruising or soiling clothing
- The age and health of volunteers
- Amount of twisting, pushing, pulling involving in stacking
- The number of batteries handled over a short period of time
- The height from which they are lifted from or to
- The layout of the storage facility or the vehicle used to transport
- The environment ie hot, sunny, humid, cold, raining
The collection of batteries could involve a variety of vehicles including utes, sedans, vans, box trailers or whatever else is available to the volunteers.
Batteries must be transported with care and all of the exposures detailed in sections above come into consideration, including:
- The weight of vehicles loaded with numerous batteries and effect on safety and handling
- The explosive gases that may accumulate in say a van or car boot
- The manual handling involved in loading and unloading
- Damage to a battery or falling over during transport and the release of sulphuric acid and subsequent damage to the vehicle or injury to volunteers
- Legalities of transporting quantities of hazardous items in various jurisdictions.
Recycled batteries are considered to be regulated waste and there are restrictions on the number of units and length of time they can be stored.
Batteries should not be stored on school or club grounds as they will become an attractive nuisance and probably be stolen.
Batteries should be stored in a secure and fit for purpose location. Potential exposures are:
- Incorrectly stacked batteries falling onto people
- The quality and design of pallets used to stack the batteries on
- Accumulation of explosive gases in unventilated spaces
- Leakage of acid causing injury, property damage or pollution
- Overloading of floors, tables or shelving
- Security – these are very attractive items
- Children living on the property
- Exposure to the elements
- Compatibility with other activities, items or chemicals in the storage area.
Any organisation about to become involved in recycling activities should obtain all relevant information from the Recycling Company about the inherent hazards and pass this onto all volunteers involved in the process.
In addition, Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) and Job Safety Analysis (JSA) should be developed and covering appropriate controls for the risks and hazards detailed above and also ensure that all volunteers are properly inducted and trained as necessary.
The controls should include but not be limited to:
- Use a specialist Recycling Company and check that they are properly licensed and insured
- Instruction about what types of batteries can be collected and recycled
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including the use of gloves, rubber aprons, goggles, respirators and footwear as appropriate
- Manual handing techniques (perhaps a special carrying device and use of trolleys or other MH equipment wherever possible?)
- Correct stacking and storage including site security
- Spill procedures including control, clean up and neutralising (lime or bi carb?)
- First aid for acid burns
- General emergency procedures
- Explosion and fire prevention
- Electrical short-circuit prevention
- Transportation including vehicle selection, safe loading, maximum loading, load stability, spill prevention & control (plastic linings or trays?)
- Check that volunteers are covered for these activities under the Club’s Insurance Policies.