Electric cars: to die for?

Electric vehicles may be good news for the environment, but they can be bad news for the people who work on them. In fact, as CHARLEEN CLARKE explains, they can be deadly.

The headlines in British newspaper The Independent on January 16, 2016, were scary: “Electric cars: mechanics with no specialist training risk death when tinkering with the vehicles” the newspaper proclaimed.

Now we all know the British press; they just love sensationalism. However, that headline amounted to much, much more than scaremongering. The reality is this: an untrained vehicle technician (as we like to call them here) can quite easily die if he or she works on an electric car.

This is confirmed by Britain’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE). “Voltages present in electric and hybrid vehicles are significantly higher (currently up to 650 Volts direct current, or DC) than those used in other vehicles (12/24/48 Volts DC).  In dry conditions, accidental contact with parts that are live at voltages above 110 Volts DC can be fatal,” it warns.

Tom Denton, author of the book Electric and Hybrid Vehicles, concurs. “The voltages on some electric vehicles can be several hundred volts, which is almost three time the mains voltage in our houses. If the human body experiences a current of just fifty thousandths of an ampere (50 mA, which is not very much) for over two seconds, it can be fatal. Some automotive technicians are going to be killed by the high voltages on electric vehicles,” he warns.

According to the HSE, electric vehicles introduce numerous hazards into the workplace. These include:

• the presence of high-voltage components and cabling capable of delivering a fatal electric shock;

• the storage of electrical energy with the potential to cause explosion or fire;

• components that may retain a dangerous voltage even when a vehicle is switched off;

• electric motors, or the vehicle itself, that may move unexpectedly due to magnetic forces within the motors;

• manual handling risks associated with battery replacement;

• the potential for the release of explosive gases and harmful liquids if batteries are damaged or incorrectly modified;

• the possibility of people being unaware of vehicles moving as they are silent in operation when electrically driven; and

• the potential for the electrical systems on the vehicle to affect medical devices such as pacemakers.

“Accordingly, additional skills and training will be necessary to allow people to work safely with electric vehicles,” it warns.

Jaguar Land Rover (South Africa), which recently launched the full-electric I-Pace in this country, is one company that has had to manage the risks associated with the servicing of electric vehicles. The I-Pace, a sports utility vehicle which offers sports car-like performance, is one of the front runners in the 2019 World Car of the Year. According to Brian Hastie, the company’s network director for South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, a massive amount of preparation was required before launch.

“We started preparing just over 18 months prior to launch. We were fortunate to be able to plug into a global project plan. All the global markets were working in parallel, even though we had slightly different launch dates. So, we were fortunate in that we had the benefit of being able to tap into broader knowledge. This was very helpful with anything and everything … from special tooling to technician training,” he tells SHEQ MANAGEMENT.

Prior to launch, the company embarked on a massive training campaign. “The minimum pass rate for technicians was 87 percent – and some of the technicians, especially the older guys, didn’t manage to achieve this. So we have got people back, continued with training and now we are seeing pass rates of over 90 percent,” he reveals.

That training can save those technicians’ lives. “It’s obviously very important that the technicians stick to what they have been taught. Working on an electric car is an extremely process-driven procedure. First, the vehicle must be powered down. Only once this has happened is it safe to work on the car. In doing this, the technician has to follow a number of steps. Measurement along the way is very important,” Hastie stresses.

The HSE confirms: “High-voltage systems should be isolated (that is the power disconnected and secured such that it cannot be inadvertently switched back on) and proven dead by testing before any work is undertaken,” it advises.

If the technician deviates from the process, he could lead himself down the path where there is a live charge. This is not a good situation. Does this mean that the technician could electrocute himself and die? “That’s a worst-case scenario, but, yes, it is possible,” Hastie says.

Obviously, that’s something that Jaguar Land Rover (South Africa) doesn’t want to see happening – and it has taken every possible precaution in this regard. “We have made substantial investments in specialised equipment. Our investment, per dealership, is R300 000. Just one of the many specialised pieces of equipment is a defibrillator. Naturally, our workshop staff also received training in operating procedures for this equipment,” Hastie reports.

The risks of working on electric cars are, however, not contained within a workshop. They are also there when a vehicle is involved in an accident; one cannot simply start cutting into an electric vehicle, for instance.

“We have done a lot of preparation in this regard as well,” says Hastie. This included the development of a handbook and guidelines for first responders. “Our contracted road response teams have all received proper training in terms of what to do in the event of an accident.”

However, it’s not only the company’s in-house teams that are potentially at risk. “Accordingly, we will continue on this path and engage with all the incident response teams, including those providing emergency services and vehicle recovery. This includes the municipal services. They are quite receptive to us talking to them. It’s obviously for their good. Thanks to the advent of hybrids, this field is not all completely new,” Hastie points out.

There are some areas of the car that are completely out of bounds to recovery crews. “The engine bay carries high-voltage cabling, for instance. The battery and all the electric equipment sit at the very bottom of the car. There are no cables above seat height so, in theory, the roof could be cut off quite safely,” he reveals. Towing can be tricky – because dangerous voltages can be generated by movement of the drive wheels.

Once a vehicle has been recovered from the scene of an accident, technicians will inspect the vehicle before anyone starts working on it. “The vehicles will need to be checked visually for signs of damage to the high-voltage electrical components or cabling. We need to ensure that the battery is in a stable condition. One of our qualified technicians will do this.

“If necessary, the car will be placed into quarantine (because the battery could be volatile, so there could be a fire). If there is any doubt, the vehicle is placed in quarantine for 48 hours. There are quarantine areas close to all the dealerships,” Hastie says.

Clearly, the Jaguar Land Rover (South Africa) team has the situation under control – for now. But what happens when there are thousands of electric vehicles on our roads? This isn’t a situation that’s likely to materialise any time soon. At this stage, the electric vehicle parc in South Africa is tiny. The grand sum of 66 electric vehicles were sold in this country last year – versus 1,1 million in China.

However, assuming that government ever supports the sale of electric vehicles (instead of making sales punitive via taxation), we could see sales rise. We will also see the electric vehicle parc ageing, and we could see vehicles being worked on by staff at non-franchised dealers. Those staff probably won’t have the necessary training, and – sadly – that’s when someone will almost certainly die.

• This article contains public sector information published by the Health and Safety Executive and licensed under the Open Government Licence.

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Charleen Clarke

My friends call me a glomad (a global nomad lest you don’t get it). That’s a particularly apt word, because I am always trawling all corners of the globe, looking for stories. As a result, I have slept in some seriously strange places – on a bed of ice in the Arctic circle, on the floor in a traditional Japanese hotel, on the sand dunes in the Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan … and even on the floor of a Thai cargo ship. Mostly however I tend to sleep on aircraft (if I had a dog, he would bark at me when I eventually come home). I am passionate about trucks, cars, travel, food, wine, people and hugs – so I write about all these things. Except the hugs.
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