Battery burn warning after pocket fires like ‘flares and fireworks’

  • Two separate incidents in WA resulted in serious leg burns
  • Loose lithium-ion batteries can ignite if they touch coins or keys
  • Safety warning for users of vapes and other portable devices

WARNING: Images of burn injuries below.

A Perth man has described the horrifying moment that a lithium-ion battery caught fire in his pocket with an “intense white light and heat”, causing agonising burns that required skin grafts.

Steve, a cameraman from Scarborough, spent a week in hospital after the incident in March. He is now joining WA’s Director of Energy Safety to warn users of portable devices such as vapes (e-cigarettes) about the potential hazards of batteries and chargers.

Steve – who wishes to be known only by his first name – was working at the Ascot Racecourse when he felt a searing pain and heat on his thigh after placing coins in the same pocket as a loose lithium-ion battery used to power a vape.

“I’ve been using these batteries for years and I was probably a bit blasé about it,” he said.

“I had noticed that the plastic coating was starting to come off the battery and, in hindsight, I should have just thrown it away.

“The battery was loose and uncased in the lower pocket of my cargo shorts.

“I usually pay for things by card but, on this occasion, I bought a coffee with cash and threw the change in my pocket without thinking. There must have been a perfect storm where the coins touched each side of the battery terminal at the same time and it ignited.

“I remember seeing a burning white flash like a flare and hearing something hissing like crazy. The battery burnt through the shorts and fell on the ground where it was still on fire, with this intense white light and heat.

“When I peeled back my shorts, the skin on the thigh looked like it had melted and there was a black char burn where the battery had stuck to the skin.

“Luckily there were paramedics on site. I spent a week in Fiona Stanley Hospital’s burns unit where they used grafts from the good leg and spray-on skin. The worst pain was actually in my hands from when I batted at the flames.

“It’s pretty scary how much damage these batteries can do in just a few seconds. I think people need to be more aware of the volatility and why they should be carried in a protective case or disposed of if there is any damage.”

In January, a WA mine worker also sustained serious thermal and chemical burns on his leg when a vape battery combusted while he was travelling in a ute. In a Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS) report, the incident was described as “not unlike fireworks going off and flying around the inside of the vehicle”.

Similar explosions have tragically caused deaths overseas.

WA’s Director of Energy Safety, Saj Abdoolakhan, said lithium-ion batteries are at risk of short-circuiting and exploding if metal objects like keys and coins make contact with the exposed terminals.

“Lithium-ion batteries of all sizes carry a huge amount of stored energy,” he said.

“This is what makes them a popular source of power for a wide range of equipment, such as whipper-snippers, drills, mobile phones and computers.

“It’s also what makes them dangerous when they do ignite, so it’s vital that all batteries and chargers comply with Australian electrical standards and that they are in good condition and used safely.”

Key safety advice:

  • Never use batteries showing signs of damage, swelling or overheating, particularly if the protective layer or wrapping has come away.
  • Don’t place batteries in direct sunlight, on hot surfaces or in hot locations.
  • Don’t leave batteries or vape products in your car, particularly on hot days.
  • Avoid over-charging batteries by removing them from the charger as soon as they are ready.
  • Use a protective device such as a case to safely transport the battery.
  • Only use charging equipment supplied with the device or recommended by the manufacturer. Don’t mix and match chargers and batteries just because they fit.
  • Be cautious about purchasing chargers and other electrical equipment from overseas.
  • Look for a regulatory compliance mark (a tick inside a triangle) or search at eess.gov.au to check whether the charger is approved for use in Australia.

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