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Working With Electric Vehicles: An Interview with KPA’s Wayne Curtis

Toby Graham /
On this episode of The Safety Meeting, guest host Toby chats with Wayne Curtis, Consulting Team Leader at KPA, about the rise of electric vehicles, how dealerships are able to accommodate the changes they bring, and how to address EV safety concerns.

[00:00:54]
First question for ya. So the electric vehicle industry is becoming hugely popular. How has this affected dealers? 

Toby, I think one of the main challenges we are seeing is really just with the facility itself. So I’ll maybe start with material handling. So just think of the batteries themselves. Some are just really big, very heavy, and very cumbersome. And so for dealers, you may need to expand your parts storage room to allow access, just to move the batteries in and out from a location.

Maybe you need to install special automotive lifts with larger lifting capacities for different lifting points. For some dealers, forklifts weren’t really a thing that you needed in the past. So dealers may not have really had a need for a forklift in the past and may now need to have a forklift just simply to move the materials for, you know, these heavy electric vehicle batteries.

And of course, with forklifts come new OSHA regulations and forklift trainings and material handling for the technicians. You know, so there’s a lot there just with, you know, the facility aside. And then what do you do with used batteries that are potentially damaged. Used batteries or potentially damaged batteries?

So separate storage areas are something to consider. Some OEMs are now requiring dealers to build basically a separate shed, a storage shed away from the dealership to safely house their used and potentially damaged batteries. 

[00:02:25]
That is a whole lot of new ways of thinking about things. I know that, during NADA, we had a lot of conversations with dealers coming up, talking about lifts and forklifts and auto lifts and fun things like that, dealing with EVs.

So I get this question a lot on the blog and I’m sure you get it even more. What safety concerns arise when servicing electric vehicles? 

Well, you know, I touched on it just briefly, um, that last comment, but I think one of the main concerns that we’re seeing is, is really being safe when working with used and or damaged batteries.

So, you know, how do you know if a battery is safe? Are there visible or measurable signs that something may be wrong? Are there obvious signs like the battery is arcing, or is it smoking? Or are there less obvious signs? Is it creating a noise or generating an odor? You know, do you observe that the battery may be physically damaged in any way?

So one of the best checks that we currently have for stability is simply just taking temperature checks and temperature readings at many places across the batteries to think about kind of a, almost a zigzag approach. You want to be able to read temperature readings across the entire battery to make certain that all the cells are stable as they should be.

So are they generating any heat? Particularly while they’re idle and then coming back 30 minutes to an hour later, and then, you know, taking the same type of measurements to see if those have changed at all. So what you’re trying to prevent is either in your vehicle or in your building is, you know, an issue that has happened with electric vehicles, which is called thermal runaway, which is what you see on the news quite often. You know, an EV gets into an accident. Catches fire. And then, you know, maybe immediately after, or sometimes it could even be days later something goes wrong with the battery cell. That cell becomes unstable and it begins releasing the stored energy as heat. So eventually you’ll have an uncontrolled release of heat, which is essentially a battery fire that is moving from battery cell to battery cell. And, uh, and those were very problematic to put out and obviously very problematic if that happens, you know, overnight inside a facility where no one else is around to help provide emergency response procedures or to call the fire department.

[00:04:52]
It sounds like checking temperature often across the battery is a good thing for service techs to do when servicing EVs. Are there other things that kind of higher level safety and service leaders can do to mitigate some of these potential hazards that are really unique to servicing electric vehicles?

Yeah. So, you know, the inspection process, I think, is just very important for batteries, especially those that you may suspect may be damaged in a way. So that’s where you really want to elevate those type of reviews and checks. You know, other safety concerns with employee safety. Service techs are typically not electricians.

You know, at least not in the workplace. You know, they may be more at home, but in the auto industry, you know, electrical energy is an entirely new hazard for our employees and introduces an entirely new set of OSHA regulations. And we now have employees who will be exposed to electrical shock hazards.

So first, you know, we really needed to just train employees, you know, what’s their proper disconnect to isolate the energy in the battery. How do you discharge the electrical energy in the battery before you, you know, work on certain components of an EV? Are you using insulated hand power tools? Are you using the appropriate electrician’s gloves? You know, those gloves have typically a six-month lifespan or so, so, um, they need to be replaced or retested periodically.

So are they current with their stamp? Does your repair order process call for a full lockout tagout program? Or if not, you know, what are the energy control procedures that you are installing, you know, as you do EV work? What else? Arc flash. So, uh, electrical hazards may expand the personal protective equipment that you can be wearing, you know, to arc flash and fire resistant clothes.

Which quite candidly, I think will be a challenge for our industry. You know, OSHA just released a new national emphasis program. So this is April 2022, by the way, but they just released a new national emphasis program that we run for several years on heat illness prevention. And I know that many of our shops are not climate controlled.

You know, so arc flash clothing, you know, things that have, uh, arc flash prevention and fire prevention, you know, may actually conflict a bit with the heat illness standards, and really just, you know, maintaining a safe, happy and comfortable workforce, I think will be an increasing challenge for us on the horizon.

[00:07:29]
You know, that makes me wonder if introducing EVs into the mix ends up tweaking the top five citations that OSHA sees for dealerships over time. That’ll be interesting to watch. 

It could be, could be, you know, it’s still such a small portion of, you know, the amount of services that we conduct is still, you know, very heavily internal combustion engine, but it definitely increases, you know, the different types of hazards.

And while we have seen a lot of thermal runaway, you know, we’re not seeing electrocution of things of that, you know, severe nature with the employees themselves. So that’s just, that’s a great sign, but it also means there are areas that we need to learn from, and we need to improve from, and how do we prepare facilities and work through those?

There are certainly going to be some dynamic and moving parts. 

[00:08:18]
My next question for you, why is it important for dealership leaders to come up with these best practices and procedures for their EV services? 

Quite simply OSHA will require it. OSHA requires employees to protect employees from all known hazards. EVs are here to stay, you know, we should, uh, evolve our safety programs with the new emerging technologies that we should anticipate.

[00:08:49]
And then I get this question a lot too, so it’s great to ask the expert directly. What resources can dealerships turn to when they have questions or concerns about electric vehicle best practices? 

You know, that’s a great question. Uh, we’re looking for those resources ourselves. There are not a lot of great resources out there just yet.

You know, OEMs certainly will have the best procedural guidance for any repair work for, you know, their specific make and models. Some of our OEMs also have guidance on requirements for facility preparedness. So they’re actually requiring their dealers to, you know, install the locations or the sheds or the certain types of, uh, preparations that they’ll need to do for the EV type work.

Your local fire marshals are always a great resource. So understanding kind of the needs of what’s happening within all the businesses that your fire marshall may work around. They’re typically in and performing inspections in most areas, at least on an annual basis. So you can have an open dialogue about any concerns or type of preparation needs that we may be looking to do.

And then KPA, I have a dedicated team on this issue. So we’re expecting to see regulatory content on electric vehicles as things progress. 

[00:10:06]
And then my last question for you today for our safety and service leaders who are new to working with EVs, what advice do you have for them to set them off on the right foot?

Sometimes people tend to forget that most of us right now are riding around with 15 to 30 gallons of gasoline up under our current vehicles. So EVs are new and different. So when bad things happen with those EVs we typically see the stories. It kind of makes the six o’clock news.

I think our real challenge from a safety leader’s perspective is taking the direction that we are receiving piece by piece from multiple different manufacturers and multiple different models, you know, over the years, and then building an easy-to-administer and effective safety program.

So something that can be used across multiple vehicle types, multiple different makes and models. And kind of work with a number of makes and models that a technician or a business may be able to see and service, you know, through their doors. So I think that’s really the main focus right now and certainly the main focus for KPA.

It’s something that we are expanding on this year. 

[00:11:18]
Well, Wayne, I think we did it. Thank you so much for chatting with us today on EVs. I’m sure our listeners learned a lot on this new topic. I really appreciate you joining us. 

Well, thank you Toby. It’s great to be here. 

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