OSHA recommends fleet managers stablish a written policy emphasizing the importance of electrical safety and outlining the commitment to ensuring a safe work environment. - Photo: Government Fleet

OSHA recommends fleet managers stablish a written policy emphasizing the importance of electrical safety and outlining the commitment to ensuring a safe work environment.

Photo: Government Fleet

When fleet managers begin the process of electrifying their fleets, there is a conversation that must be had: how will they ensure the safety of their technicians as they maintain and repair electric vehicles?

Many public sector fleets facing zero emissions requirements — like the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB’s) Advanced Clean Fleets (ACF) regulation — are beginning to have this discussion.

Working with any vehicle can present safety risks, but throwing an EV into the mix can complicate things. EVs have different risks than their internal combustion engine counterparts. The same risks apply to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Before You Begin: Conduct a Risk Assessment

Before you roll up your sleeves and start working on an EV, it’s crucial to maintain a basic understanding of the potential hazards associated with working with them. Many of the risks are associated with the battery itself. Michael Taylor of HillStaffer urges technicians to be careful when working with lithium-ion batteries.

Making direct contact with high-voltage lithium-ion batteries can pose significant risks, including direct current (DC), which can cause cardiac arrest. Another risk, alternating current (AC), can cause an irregular heart rhythm.

Damaged or mishandled EV batteries can also cause burns, and electrical arcing can happen during battery maintenance or malfunctions, causing arc flashes or blasts.

Responding to EV-Related Emergencies

Emergencies can and likely will happen at some point in your shop, so plan ahead. It’s essential to always keep safety at the forefront, said David Renschler, CPFP, fleet division manager for the city of Fairfield, California.

Renschler has several EVs on his fleet and is planning to add more to meet CARB’s ACF requirements, so safety and planning are front of mind for him right now.

“It's our job as managers to have an umbrella to protect the folks under us. I can't stress how important the safety is of the folks that rely on you to make decisions about their life,” Renschler said.

One distinguishing factor between EVs and ICE vehicles is that EV fires are more difficult to put out. Because lithium batteries cannot be extinguished with traditional methods, proper protocols for quarantining and managing battery fires are necessary.

EV battery fires can produce toxic smoke, threatening the health of your shop employees. Ensuring proper ventilation in your shop is important. Additionally, improperly stored batteries can lead to not only a fire, but they can also cause leaks or lead to other hazardous situations or pollution. Proper storage, cleanup, and disposal are essential to preventing pollution.

Storing Damaged EV Batteries

Proper storage of EV batteries is critical, Taylor said. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, lithium-ion batteries can become damaged from physical impact, improper charging, or when temperatures are too high — above 130°F — or below freezing — 32°F. Be sure to label batteries appropriately and store them in designated areas, ensuring separation by distance or a fire-rated wall.

Remember EV battery fires require special handling since they are anaerobic fires. That means they do not require oxygen to burn. Taylor stressed that the keys are containment and prevention of the fire spreading.

Setting a Standard for Working with EVs

Currently, there are no comprehensive regulations solely for the technicians who work with EVs. However, in April 2024, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration proposed safety standards for regulations governing the handling of EVs. The proposed regulation, known as FMVSS No. 305a, would replace and expand upon the existing FMVSS No. 305 regulation.

Among other improvements, the updated standards would apply to light- and heavy-duty vehicles and would have performance and risk mitigation requirements for the propulsion battery. The regulation would also require manufacturers to submit standardized emergency response guides for first responders handling EV-related emergencies.

While the standard mainly applies to the OEMs manufacturing the vehicles, the emergency response guides would likely offer insights to fleet managers creating safety policies for handling EVs.

OEMs would have two years after the final rule is published to comply with it, while the emergency response guides would get more time to be completed.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) also has training materials on EV safety. While it’s geared toward first responders, some safety measures may still be applied in fleet shops.

OSHA regulations and training requirements allow for electrical safety in the workplace. Taylor said every fleet manager should implement an electrical safety program as laid out by OSHA, and should require all fleet team members receive the education and training.

OSHA recommends fleet managers:

  1. Establish a written policy emphasizing the importance of electrical safety and outlining the commitment to ensuring a safe work environment.
  2. Provide ongoing and comprehensive training to all employees exposed to electrical hazards, focusing on hazard recognition, safe work practices, and emergency response procedures.
  3. Conduct regular inspections of electrical equipment and systems to identify and correct potential hazards. Audits of the electrical safety program can help identify areas for improvement and ensure compliance with OSHA regulations.
  4. Establish a process for investigating and reporting electrical incidents, near misses, and unsafe conditions. These investigations can help identify root causes, develop corrective actions, and prevent future incidents.
  5. Implement a lockout procedure.

However, this should just be a baseline.

“Fleet managers are going to have to look to vendors and educational institutions to provide their team members with training beyond this starting point,” Taylor said.

OEMs typically offer training resources to give technicians a better understanding of their vehicles. This can be especially helpful when you bring an EV into the mix. Your local Clean Cities Coalition chapter may also offer training.

Changes You’ll Need to Make to Your Fleet Shop

As fleets prepare to electrify, it is a given that they will be required to reconfigure their maintenance and vehicle parking setups, Taylor explained. Challenges fleet managers may face during this process include long runs of trenching, reduced parking during construction or permanently reduced parking, high voltage/amperage underground vaults, and creating charging equipment protection.

Renschler is working with a consultant to fabricate a temporary maintenance facility while more bays are added to his existing shop. The electric transit buses on the fleet are too tall to be worked on in the current bays since the battery is stored atop the bus.

This is another factor Taylor pointed out that could lead to necessary reconfigurations: existing fleet shops may not provide sufficient vehicle to roof clearance.

In the Fairfield fleet shop, scaffolding will need to be assembled to create a safe work environment for technicians working on the transit bus batteries. Due to space constraints, transit bus battery work will need to be done outside in order for there to be enough room for the scaffolding.

Another factor to remember is that there just be a 10-ft clearance between the electric vehicle (EV) and the nearest metal object. Additionally, there should be an extra 10 ft of clearance between insulated fall protection work platforms and the closest metal object.

Other Factors to Consider

Because EVs are heavier, you may need to make changes to your facility’s foundation, especially if you have a heavy-duty EV like a transit bus or electric refuse truck. Additionally, this likely also means you will need to replace your existing vehicle lifts with heavier duty ones.

In Fairfield, Renschler faces a unique challenge because the floors in his heavy-duty shop contain a mix of metal flakes in the concrete for added strength. In order to combat this, the floor would need to have a special coating put over it, which would add a few inches to the ground level, making the in-ground vehicle lifts recessed. These are issues the team is working through with a consultant.

Renschler stressed that while this may be overwhelming, many of the potential hazards that exist for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles do not exist for the light-duty sedans you may be slowly adding to your fleet. It’s when you have the added weight and voltage that things can become more hazardous if you aren’t vigilant.

Still, there are some safety standards in place across the board for EVs of all sizes.

What About Damaged EVs?

Fleet managers may face challenges when dealing with damaged EVs. Light-duty EVs typically require a 50-ft radius between the vehicle and the next closest object in case of a delayed fire; the requirement for medium- and heavy-duty EVs may be even greater. Manufacturers may have their own recommendations.

For Gillig electric buses, which Renschler has on his fleet, the manufacturer’s Vehicle Emergency Response Guide states the vehicles must not be in or within 150 ft of a structure or other vehicle.

Furthermore, an EV must remain in quarantine for between for 48 hours and two weeks depending on the manufacturer’s safety protocols.

It can take between 2,500 to 20,000 gallons of water to contain an EV battery fire if one occurs either while working with an EV, or in a crash. Runoff water may contain hazardous chemicals that can trigger a HAZMAT response if the water threatens to enter a storm drain or creek.

EV Charger Installation Safety

There are also standards governing the installation and operation of EV chargers. The National Electric Code (NEC), or NFPA 70, sets standards for the design, construction, and maintenance of electrical wiring and equipment.

While the NEC is not a U.S. law, the NEC is commonly mandated on the state or local level. Where the NEC is adopted, anything less is illegal, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation. The NEC is part of the National Fire Codes series published by the NFPA.

Rather than EV-specific regulations, OSHA applies its existing electrical safety standards to EV charging infrastructure and EV-related activities, Michael Parr of Hillstaffer explained.

Here is a list of OSHA standards and an NFPA standard that apply to handling EV and charging infrastructure in the workplace:

Electrical Requirements Including Safe Distances

Training Requirements

Ensuring Compliance Within Your Operation

If you do not have someone on your team who handles compliance, Taylor recommends hiring someone or adding the portfolio to an existing employee with some experience in this field, or who you believe could take on this new or additional role. If this is not something you can budget for, weigh whether working with an outside consultant may be more beneficial and cost effective.

Taylor also recommends public fleet managers seek the help of a consultant or vendor to assist in drafting up and overseeing the overall implementation of an electrification plan.

Lean on fleet managers within your network who are already working through this process to glean information from them as well.

“High voltage electrical safety will be a new area of concern for many fleet managers that will require them to understand relevant NEC, OSHA, and NFPA requirements and standards,” Parr said.

About the author
Christy Grimes

Christy Grimes

Senior Editor

Christy Grimes is a Senior Editor at Bobit, working on Automotive Fleet and Government Fleet publications. She has also written for School Bus Fleet.

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