Battery Pack
© Janaka Dharmasena

Shippers of lithium batteries will face a new hurdle from 1 January, thanks to new transport regulations.

The United Nations’ Committee of Experts, which creates the framework for dangerous goods regulations,  has introduced a requirement which obliges manufacturers, and distributors of cells or batteries, to make available the test summary for their products.

To date, lithium cells and batteries have to be tested in accordance with the UN Manual of Test and Criteria Part III, Section 38.3. If satisfied, the test facility provides a summary certificate for the manufacturer that confirms that the cells or batteries meet an international standard and can be shipped around the world in accordance with relevant regulations.

The innovation is that this document must, from the new year, be made available throughout the distribution network, and this additional hurdle is causing some disquiet among lithium battery shippers.

The regulation appeared in the 2019/2020 editions of ADR (the road regulations) and the ICAO Technical Instructions and, therefore, the 60th edition of the IATA Regulations (air) as well as in Amendment 38/18 of the IMDG Code (sea). However, the regulators provided a derogation until the end of 2019, so the implications of the rule have been largely ignored – until a few weeks ago.

Already there are stories circulating of freight forwarders refusing to accept shipments of lithium batteries if they are not supplied with a copy of the test certificate.

Of course, this is not what the regulation states; it just says that “manufacturers and subsequent distributors ….must make it available,” and this wording is vague enough to be open to different interpretations. It can just mean the shipper has to confirm in writing that they have a copy of the test certificate, while some carriers might insist on seeing a copy. Crucially, there is no requirement in the legislation for the certificate to accompany the shipment.

Obliging shippers to present a copy of the test certificate has the potential to slow down the movement of lithium batteries around the world. Manufacturers sell their batteries to a vast number of users in the IT, motor, entertainment, medical and other sectors. There is hardly a device that is not powered by a lithium ion or lithium metal battery, and once installed in a unit (for example a laptop), this can be sold through several distributors before, perhaps, ending up being sold from a shop or a website.

All these distributors might be required to show their logistics partner the test certificate, and it is going to be challenging to ensure that this document accompanies every item as it makes its way through the supply chain to the final customer. In addition, as batteries become larger and more sophisticated, some manufacturers could be reluctant to provide a test certificate as it could end up in the hands of their competitors.

It is generally recognised that the lithium battery transport regulations are far too complex. Many batteries are airfreighted, where typically the packing instructions stretch to more than three pages of tightly written text, and there are also a lot of special provisions to comprehend. The reason is that the regulators have had to keep up with rapid technical developments, which is also why there are changes to the regulations almost every year – with more to come in 2021!

The result is that shippers and distributors that want to comply, struggle with the complexity of the regulations, while others choose, either deliberately or through lack of knowledge, to ignore them. There are a lot of incidents worldwide related to the shipment of undeclared lithium batteries, which pose a danger to the public as well as to the trucks, vessels and aircraft that transport millions of batteries each day.

Whether this latest amendment to the regulations will provide a further degree of safety, or just a hindrance and delay for legitimate shippers and distributors, will become clearer in the new year.

Nicholas Mohr is managing director of Peter East Associates which specialises in training and consultancy in the transport of lithium batteries. 

Comment on this article

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  • David Brennan

    December 16, 2019 at 3:50 pm

    Nicholas seems to be confusing the UN 38.3 test certificate with the “test summary” that must be made available as of 1 January 2020 when he states that some manufacturers may be reluctant to provide it.

    The UN Subcommittee recognised that manufacturers of lithium cells and batteries were reluctant to make the UN 38.3 test certificate publicly available for several reasons. It can be a very large and technically detailed document, plus it could provide information to competitors.

    That is the reason that the Subcommittee and the battery industry came up with the test summary, which is just that a summary. The information required in the summary allows a shipper to be able to explicitly identify the lithium cell, battery or piece of equipment and therefore be satisfied that the lithium cell or battery is of a tested type.

    As stated by Nicholas, the regulations do not require the shipper to provide a copy of the test summary when offering their goods for transport. IATA supports that position.