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Data Center Safety And Risk Assessment: A Scorecard

When you walk into your data center, do you notice anything that could be a potential safety hazard? While most data centers are hyper-focused and vigilant about safety in terms of data and access security, not all pay enough attention to the physical and occupational safety of onsite staff. Even seemingly innocuous issues such as a misplaced ladder or a tangle of cables on the floor may cause serious injuries. 

If there are a few obvious or standard safety risks that are addressed (think hearing protection and electrical hazards), there may be others that you can’t see. Unless you regularly perform data center safety assessments, you may miss building safety issues, electrical and fire hazards, or other problems that aren’t visible or addressed in the operational procedures. 

You may not know where to look for potential problems or what you can do today to save yourself time, money, stress, and headaches in the future. In fact, at ServerLIFT we received our first order from a company responding to a costly lawsuit resulting from the fact that they overlooked one of these safety blindspots.

This data center risk assessment scorecard is a good starting point. It will help you look in the right places as you try to pinpoint potential problems and fix them before they turn into serious accidents. Simply run down the checklist, note any places where your safety protocols may be falling short, and follow the suggestions on how to remedy them. 

Risk Analysis

  • Determine risks before beginning any new task.
  • Think through each procedure step-by-step to identify potential hazards.
  • Document these risks as part of your safety risk analysis.
  • Repeat safety audits on a regular basis. Never assume that a problem will go away permanently simply because you have addressed it once already. 

Planning and Training

  • Include worker safety training as part of regular job training. 
  • Ensure every team member can identify risks associated with each system: electrical, mechanic, hydraulic, thermal, chemical, etc.
  • Ensure each team member knows and can follow proper procedures for each of those systems.
  • Always avoid hazards when possible. Redesign or modify your existing systems to reduce the identified safety risks.
  • If it’s not possible to avoid hazards entirely, take measures to protect against them. These measures may include using personal protective equipment (PPE), purchasing additional safety devices—such as guards for sharp machinery—obtaining additional safety certifications and training, and anything else the situation requires.
  • Plan for emergencies. What will your team do if a fire breaks out? What if someone falls from a height? What is the protocol if employees begin working on a system that may not be properly de-energized?
  • Have an evacuation plan for emergencies that cannot be contained.
  • Regularly train and test employees on emergency and evacuation procedures.

Laws And Regulations

  • Check your local laws and ordinances to see which certifications and permits you may need to perform a task. 
  • Look up OSHA plans, electrical safety codes, and fire safety protocols in particular. 
  • Acquire any necessary permits. For example, there may be separate permits required for electrical work, operation of equipment, and handling hazardous materials. 
  • Ensure that all employees obtain the correct qualifications, certifications, and permits prior to working on the tasks that require them.

PPE And Other Safety Equipment

  • Obtain and use the proper PPE for the job. This may include:

    • Eye and ear protection

    • Voltage-rated gloves

    • Rubber-soled boots

    • Hard hats

    • Face shields

    • Flame-retardant clothing

    • Fire blankets

  • Obtain and use the correct tools for the job. Do not attempt to use improper tools meant for a different purpose. 
  • Source high-quality safety equipment and PPE. Not all equipment is made the same, and some may be far superior or inferior than others. Talk with your employees about which PPE they prefer and why. 
  • Check each piece of equipment to make sure safety devices are installed correctly. For example, adjust work rests on bench grinders to a maximum of ⅛ inch (0.317 centimeters). Bench grinder wheel peripheries should not exceed ¼ inch (0.635 centimeters) from the adjustable tongue. You can use a bench grinder safety scale to quickly and accurately measure these safety points.
  • Use fan blade guards when blades are less than seven feet (2.13 meters) from the ground.
  • Perform regular visual inspections of tools, equipment, electrical  components, and PPE. Discard anything that has been damaged or worn.

Communication

  • Ensure team members are in agreement about risks, proper protocols, and emergency procedures. There should be no surprises once work begins.
  • Label all potential risks clearly, including—but not limited to—hazardous materials containers, so everyone is aware of potential hazards.
  • Use the most specific label possible. Arc flash hazards, for example, should be labeled “Arc Flash” as opposed to “Danger.” “High Voltage” signs may also be overlooked by hurried workers. Instead of using broad, vague warnings, include specific dangers on the label stickers so workers know how to avoid the risks. 
  • Provide a feedback mechanism whereby all team members are able to identify and report new or unaddressed safety issues. Everyone should be comfortable doing so, and confident that they will be addressed quickly and effectively.
  • Document all procedures. Include any safety issues that were encountered so they can be addressed. 

Electrical And Machinery Hazards

  • Make sure all team members agree on methods to de-energize the system they will be working on.
  • Team members should also agree on and have a plan for re-energizing the system after completing their work.
  • Test the system to be sure it has been properly de-energized and isolated before beginning work.

Fire Hazards

  • Be aware of all possible ignition sources. These may include dust under equipment, explosive materials, wall or floor coverings, paint, clothing, lint, oils, etc.
  • Remove any ignition sources that can be removed.
  • Have fire extinguishers, sprinklers, hose hookups, and other fire-fighting equipment on hand.
  • Maintain all fire safety equipment and check expiration dates on extinguishers.
  • Have trained personnel monitor for fires during and for one hour after the work has been completed.
  • Guards, engineers, or other employees should monitor for fire risks for three or more hours after work has been completed.

Chemicals And Other Hazardous Materials

  • Identify any potentially hazardous materials. This includes anything that may burn skin, cause eye irritation or blindness, pose an inhalation risk, explode under heat, pressure, or with a spark, or damage and corrode electrical equipment. 
  • Label each hazardous material.
  • Store hazardous materials in appropriate containers and storage areas according to laws and regulations.
  • Materials such as fuel and batteries should be stored away from workers and away from heat and potential sparks of electricity. 

Trip And Fall Hazards

  • Whenever possible, perform work at ground level instead of working from ladders or raised platforms.
  • Regularly test raised platforms and scaffolds for stability and weight-bearing capacity.
  • Anchor all scaffolds and platforms to prevent them from toppling.
  • Always ensure proper ladder angle before using ladders. The optimal angle is 75.5 degrees away from a vertical wall. Use the 4:1 rule: for every four feet in height, the ladder’s base should rest one foot away from the wall. Use a ladder level to obtain this optimal angle and reduce the risk of slippage or tipping. 
  • Have employees hold and anchor ladders while they’re being used.
  • Repair or discard all ladders, scaffolds, and other equipment when they show signs of wear or damage.
  • Ensure that floors are clear of debris, dust, dirt, slippery materials, or anything else that could cause workers to trip or lose their footing.
  • Organize cables into logical routes and separate any cables that have become tangled.
  • Any cables that lie across walkways should be placed under covers to prevent loose cables from becoming trip hazards.

Lifting And Moving Heavy Loads

  • Understand which loads can be moved alone and which require additional people or specialized equipment to lift. Generally speaking, loads weighing 50 pounds (22.7 kilograms) or more require additional people or lifting equipment. 
  • Use the right equipment to lift heavy loads. Rack-mounted IT equipment, for example, should only be moved on dedicated data center lifts capable of safely transporting heavy servers, switches, UPS devices, and PDUs with precision and stability.
  • Train employees on how to safely rig and secure heavy loads.
  • Always use safety straps, even if the load seems stable on its own.
  • Monitor employees for safe lifting procedures. Watch for proper footwear, straight backs, bent knees, and safe lifting heights. 
  • Keep lifting between knee and shoulder height. Equipment on the floor or above the head will require additional equipment. 
  • If necessary, redesign rooms and equipment arrangements to allow for safe lifting and handling procedures.
  • Ensure only certified employees use lifting and moving equipment such as forklifts.
  • Double-check the safe load limits and reach of all moving equipment.
  • Check to make sure all straps, brakes, guard rails, and other safety devices on moving equipment are operational.

Safety procedures and experiences don’t have to be proprietary. It can help you and others to discuss and share these things with colleagues in the industry. You might discover something that helps keep one of your team members safe, or give an idea to someone in another data center that protects one of their employees. The Data Center Safety group on LinkedIn is such a forum and a great place to have those conversations. If you haven’t already, join today and let the community know about your latest data center safety efforts. Or feel free to reach out to us at [email protected].

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