E-cigarettes: Emerging fire hazard?

As employers and individuals look for alternatives to smoking tobacco, the use of e-cigarettes is on the rise. Unified Investigations & Sciences, part of Sedgwick’s family of companies, recently took a closer look at the emerging risks associated with these devices.

Fires caused by malfunctioning e-cigarettes are on the rise

By now, most people are familiar with electronic cigarettes, or e-cig. This rapidly advancing technology first came from an invention in China in 2003 by Hon Lik. The basic design has remained virtually unchanged; however, the accessory market has driven e-cig sales to a whole new level. As of November 2014, the e-cig market in the U.S. alone was over $1 billion and continuing to grow due to its attractiveness to younger users and those who want to quit smoking traditional cigarettes.

The e-cig has been marketed as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes and for those looking to avoid the harmful effects of traditional cigarettes. However, in addition to the inherent health dangers of e-cig, here is another harmful factor emerging related to these devices. If you can’t guess, it’s a fire hazard. A majority of you have probably never heard of the fire hazard e-cigs have the potential to cause. When you take into consideration the number of units sold throughout the U.S. from product-specific dealers to street corner convenience stores, the probability of e-cig failures increases every day.

The simplicity of these devices makes them more alluring for their perceived convenience, portability and charging methods (USB). According to a white paper published by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 80% of e-cig fires occur while charging. Documentation has shown fires resulting from charging e-cigs in vehicles, homes, bars, convenience stores and numerous businesses (by employees). The risk of loss to the business is much greater when the aspect of lost time comes into play.

When you stop and think about someone charging an e-cig, whose equipment and electricity are being used to charge the device? If it is at a place of business – your workplace – they are using company equipment and power for personal use which may result in a fire, especially if left unattended for an extended period of time. This makes no difference as to how new the e-cig is or how well it has been maintained.

The most prominent failure observed has been from battery venting (like an explosion). When this occurs, pieces of the e-cig and battery can be discharged in different directions creating more than one fire, especially in the presence of lightweight combustible material. This leads to not only a fire hazard but personal injury risk, as well. The fire hazard stemming from this failure event can be very minimal or catastrophic for varying factors. The risk of high-level damage and lost time in the business environment is much greater considering the place, people and equipment involved. The result of one of these devices malfunctioning is shown in the photos above.

This instance (see above right) occurred while operating a motor vehicle. Now imagine if this was your office building.

The bottom line is there is an increase in the number of fires and accidents resulting from e-cigarettes. As an employer, you should look at your policies regarding their proper use, if at all, in the workplace. Where does the risk lie – to those in the workplace as well as to property – if a fire occurs?

No matter where the e-cig is charging or how many eyes may be upon it, the potential for these devices to fail and become ignition sources is always present. If you have questions about preventive steps or how you should approach e-cig use in your office, please let us know.

Mathew Cooper, IAAI-CFI, Senior Investigator
Unified Investigations & Sciences | a Sedgwick company

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