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Five Critical Data Center Safety Considerations

power electrician lineman at work

Objectively speaking, a data center can be a dangerous place. There are tightly-knit cables and wires, and thousands of live, high-voltage electrical components. And there are acts of nature that can seriously affect data center operations, such as solar flares, major fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and lightning strikes. Data centers are also increasing in size in many parts of the world; magnifying these risks. Add on a skilled labor shortage and a longer work week and you have a recipe for potential disaster.

Accidents Due to Human Error

  • Electrician Brandon Schroeder travels the country talking to businesses, including data center crews. He shares his near-death experience as an electrician—the day he was hit by an arc flash while doing a job without protective gear.
  • In 2017, a contractor drilled a spike through a power main, knocking out two UKFast data center buildings in Manchester, England.
  • Also in 2017, 75,000 British Airways passengers were stranded when an engineer caused a data center power surge (a $100 million incident).

A common thread in these accidents, year to year, was human error. 

Continuity of Service: Five Critical Data Center Safety Items

Social Distancing in Data CentersThe conversation on data center safety often trends toward security and data safety concerns. These are extremely important, but physical safety and training standards must also be paramount; accidental and unintentional events DO derail operations.

Prior to ever stepping into a data center environment, most operators undergo many hours of health and safety training. They are learning to operate, manage, and repair some of the world’s most specialized equipment. Their well-being is constantly at risk without the proper protocols; and this includes top-of-the-line server room safety equipment.

Below we’ve laid out our top five data center safety items along with a bonus item made imperative by the events of 2020. Combine these items with proper training to ensure your data center is well-prepared for the unexpected.

#1: Hazardous Chemical Inventory and Storage

A hazard communication program is a key element of any properly run data center; here in the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides federal guidance on the inventory and storage of hazardous chemicals. This program must include a written plan, chemical labeling, employee information and training, and procedural implementation to maintain standards.

State and local guidelines also apply to chemical storage in DC facilities. The hazardous chemical most often kept in or near the data center is stored diesel fuel for generators. Diesel fuel may be kept in aboveground storage tanks (ASTs), or underground storage tanks (USTs). The EPA provides federal regulations including a required Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure Plan (SPCC) for ASTs and USTs of a certain size. Read more here. Other applicable items: cleaning solutions and solvents, used process piping, small batteries, and items such as fluorescent lamps.

#2: Noise Monitoring

How loud is too loud? I started my career in the aerospace industry, and the noise inside a data center always reminded me of being near an aircraft engine. Servers are loud. Cooling fans are loud. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands, and the environment is deafening. Most DC setups include mandatory hearing protection before entering the server room. But the IT infrastructure isn’t the only danger; a few years back, a fire drill went horribly wrong in the data center of a Romanian bank. Gas released from fire extinguishers was so loud the vibrations destroyed dozens of hard drives and cost the bank a lot of money in repairs and recovery.

OSHA requires employers to take action when noise averages 85 decibels or above during an 8-hour work day, on an 8-hour time-weighted average. This is also the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) recommended exposure limit. The CDC estimates as many as 22 million workers are exposed annually to noise levels high enough to damage their hearing. It’s worth noting that permanent hearing loss has no cure. Thus, a hearing conservation program and preventative equipment are both required inside the data center.

#3: Protective Gear for Electrical Work

The data center is filled with IT infrastructure requiring a massive electrical energy supply. ABB estimates the minimum cost of an electrical accident at $750,000—not to mention potential loss of Safety Equipment Graphichuman life.

Arc flash incidents pose the greatest risk to operators. An arc flash is a short circuit, with electricity flowing through the air from one conductor to another. The force generated can crush metal—and bone. It is possible to survive an arc flash, but these events often leave their victims unable to hear or see and suffering from significant burns.

The gear used in a data center to protect employees from electrical dangers can be divided into two categories: Insulating Protective Equipment (IPE) and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The former goes on the equipment itself or attachments, while PPE goes on the worker. Examples of IPE include: 

  • Insulating barriers
  • Insulating (rubber) line hose
  • Hoods
  • Blankets
  • Live line tools:
    • Hot sticks (an insulated pole)
    • Switchsticks
    • Shotgun sticks (hot stick with a hook for installing hot-line and grounding clamps)

Examples of PPE include:

  • Flame-resistant clothing
  • Voltage-rated gloves
  • Hard hats with full face shields
  • Safety glasses
  • Safety shoes
  • Full-coverage flash suits

PPE must be sufficient enough to protect the user, but not so bulky that it blocks the person’s vision or physical dexterity. As the implications of an electrical accident in the data center are severe, management must ensure workers are well-protected.

#4: Warning Labels

Electrical Safety and Warning SignsWarning labels which read “Danger: Energized Equipment” or “High Voltage” are helpful but are often not considered sufficient within a data center environment. Data center safety guidelines dictate the usage of clear and helpful guidelines on signage placed throughout facilities.

In shared spaces such as colos, these labels can be instrumental in guiding the work done without management supervision. An important note: due to liability concerns, the responsibility for properly marking dangerous equipment within a data center lies with the DC owner, not the manufacturer or installer. Warning labels should provide enough information to alert workers and inform them of the proper ways to comply with safety standards. ServerLIFT offers our own safety signage free of charge; contact us if they are needed for your business.

#5: ServerLIFT Data Center Lift

ServerLIFT data center lifts are the only motorized and hand-cranked lifts fully qualified to operate in data center settings around the world. The SL-500XⓇ Electric Lift, SL-1000X® Super-Duty Lift, SL-350XⓇ Hand-Cranked Lift, and SL-500FX™ Front-Loading Lift all comply with CE, FCC, KC, and IC (as applicable). The machines are also UL certified, and as a manufacturer of these lifts, ServerLIFT is both ISO 9001 and 14001 certified.

Some data center owners attempt to make do with alternatives such as Genie® material lifts and warehouse lifts. These lifts are not safe to operate in the data center and could result in serious injuries. Only ServerLIFT devices are purpose-built for specific use in the data center and carry a 100 percent accident-free record as reported by our clients. And only ServerLIFT data center lifts can be operated by a single engineer in conjunction with COVID-19 social distancing protocols and public health safety requirements.

#6: BONUS: COVID-19 PPE

Server Handling Protocol SignThe pandemic, of course, prompted a bonus item on our data center safety list: personal protective equipment for data center workers. Even staffers not working directly on equipment must maintain a six-foot distance and wear masks. Other safety standards include increased deep cleaning protocols, signage, temperature screenings, and remote monitoring whenever possible.

Server Room and Data Center Safety Standards

The data center is, in reality, a very dangerous place; but proper preparation and the right safety supplies can keep accidents from happening. The incidents listed in this article are all great learning opportunities for an industry growing rapidly. Well-trained, well-supplied people make the difference in the data center, no matter the size. To continue learning about data center safety with ServerLIFT and enabling a supportive safety culture, click here.

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