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Protective garments for gigafactory workers

13 May 2024

Keeping gigafactory workers safe is critical to achieving a successful green transition, says Steve Marnach.

GLOBAL EFFORTS to meet the climate goals set at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP)1 are gaining momentum. A substantial increase in Lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery manufacture for electric vehicles (EVs) is central to these efforts. McKinsey predicts a tenfold increase in the battery value chain to reach a global demand of 4,500 gigawatt-hours (GWh) per year by 20302. This level of scale-up can only be achieved by rolling out gigafactories for mass Li-ion battery production. There are already 33 gigafactories under construction across the EU and the UK, and the European Battery Alliance aims to spend €3.5 billion on EV battery research and production.

However, these gigafactories present new challenges to protecting workers and preventing environmental contamination. There is limited data on the risks associated with Li-ion batteries, making it imperative for gigafactories to perform risk assessments. Even though some toxicological data may not be available for proprietary reasons, producers must take adequate measures to protect workers, including the careful selection of protective garments.

Gigafactory risks

Li-ion battery chemistry is continuously changing as the technology evolves. Currently, manufacturers use several hazardous chemicals and compounds for cathodes, including lithium nickel cobalt manganese oxide (NCM), lithium nickel cobalt aluminium oxide (NCA), or lithium iron phosphate (LFP)3. These chemicals have various health effects, from allergic skin reactions to cancer or damage to organs4

Other chemicals used in the manufacturing process could expose workers to risks. For example, N-methyl pyrrolidone (NMP)5, used during the slurry preparation process, is classified as hazardous. Lithium hexafluorophosphate(1-) (LiPF6)6 Salt and organic solvents based on ethylene carbonate (EC)7 are harmful chemicals commonly used during the electrolyte filling process. Whereas European PPE directive 89/686/EEC sets the exposure levels for individual substances, there is still limited toxicological data and regulations on exposure to chemical mixtures.

Fire is another well-known risk of Li-ion batteries. The electrolyte-filling process is a high-risk activity because the electrolyte itself is typically a flammable liquid or gel solvent. A spark generated by electrostatic discharge, damaged wire on the production line, or any other source could lead to catastrophic consequences.

The risk of contamination is also significant for Li-ion battery production. The manufacturing environment must be carefully controlled to prevent defects due to humidity or contamination, with part of the production process occurring within dry cleanrooms. However, present regulations do not offer a standardised approach for EV production cleanrooms. Each manufacturer adopts their approach, typically using cleanrooms ranging from ISO 6 to ISO 9.

Choosing the right protective garments

Selecting the correct protective garment begins with an assessment of exposure risk. Some tasks, like maintenance activities, expose workers to a higher risk of chemical exposure than others, like slurry production. These activities will require a higher classification of protective garments. Another vital characteristic is breathability, especially for workers who carry out repetitive tasks over long shifts. Gigafactory protective clothing should also fit other PPE, like protective gloves, safety footwear, and respiratory protective equipment (RPE). 

Cleanroom protective garments are critical as more than seven in 10 contamination incidents in cleanrooms are due to workers8. Thorough testing is essential to guarantee a high particle filtration efficiency and a low risk of particle shedding, thus providing a reliable barrier against contamination from operators and their garments.

A safer future

The global shift to EVs is gaining momentum rapidly in line with global climate goals9. As a result, many gigafactories for Li-ion battery production are already online or under construction. Protective garments will play a significant role in protecting operators from new and existing safety risks as battery technology continues to evolve.

DuPont has expertise, knowledge, and solutions that are REACH-compliant to support a gigafactory's HSE needs by tailoring clothing to help protect workers against specific chemical compounds. The company`s experts can also offer guidance on cleanroom requirements and clothing to help gigafactories minimise contamination of sensitive manufacturing processes conducted in controlled environments.

Steve Marnach is EMEA training manager and specialist critical environments at DuPont. For more information, visit www.dupont.com.


4 Based on data from https://echa.europa.eu/information-on-chemicals 
7 https://echa.europa.eu/substance-information/-/substanceinfo/100.040.289
8  Ramstorp M., “Introduction to Contamination Control and Cleanroom Technology”, Wiley VCH, 2000, Weinheim (Germany)
9 https://unfccc.int/