The Current State of Data Center Safety

Data centers are unique spaces that come with unique challenges. Each DC is designed differently depending on its geographic location, service providers, data storage types, etc. Cooling and power concerns are typically the biggest expense and therefore always top of mind. As a result, most feature restricted spaces that include narrow aisles and/or overhead/ground-level obstructions. And, no matter how they are configured, the handling of servers and other expensive, sensitive equipment is an often-overlooked challenge.

Rack-mounted data center devices are expensive, large, and oftentimes heavy. They should never be lifted by hand. 30 pounds is the limit for a person carrying items in an office or in another non-physical role. In a warehouse or industrial setting, the recommended limit for manual lifting of equipment from OSHA only goes up to 50 pounds. In any case, with dimensions of at least 17 inches wide and 30+ inches deep, even the lightest of rack-mounted servers are awkward to handle, physically speaking.

Some of the most common injuries in the IT industry include strains and sprains of the arms, shoulders, and back. The probability of an incident and its potential severity while conducting this type of work in a DC is significant,” notes Walter Leclerc, Director, Environmental Occupational Health and Safety at Digital Realty.

The Data Center Cultural Shift

The good news is that a global cultural change is taking place in data centers. The baseline expectation for safety standards in DC facilities is starting to shift quickly.

“Early on in the history of data centers . . . there was a lot of bootstrapping and there weren’t a lot of established standards. And one of the things we are seeing is that the industry is maturing. Facilities are starting to consolidate into similar kinds of standards across the world. A baseline expectation of facility safety and standards for most data centers has developed within the DC cultural consciousness,” says Brandon Budd, Vice President of Operations at ServerLIFT Corporation.

Expectations are increasing for both physical and digital standards. On the physical side of the spectrum, there is a greater focus on safer working conditions, improved compliance, and the reduction of bodily injuries. New occupational health and safety standards are being crafted in response. Informed and demanding customers now have a better understanding of the significant workplace hazards hidden within a data center.

“The cultural change has been brought on by incidents, an increased enforcement posture by government agencies, a better understanding in the workplace of safety hazards as well as rules and regulations, design improvements, and an overall culture shift in the DC industry,” says Leclerc.

Data Centers at Risk

Manual lifting carries great risk for both the operator and their employer. Injuries drive up the data center costs while limiting growth and expansion capabilities. There is a battle over the short supply of technical talent as it is, making losing a tech to a preventable injury or downtime even more costly. Aside from the significant threat to employee safety, there is also the potential damage to storage, processing, and distribution equipment. These risks are no longer going unnoticed in the industry.

A strategic roadmap to better safety standards, improved productivity, and cost reduction in the data center should include a physical solution that offsets the dangers and costs of injuries and accidents.

Safety First: Mechanical Server Handling 

A mechanical data center lift brings risk levels down to nearly zero when used properly. It is a safety-focused solution, designed for use in an IT infrastructure environment.

“I can see how a tech might not want to bring out the lift just to move one 50-pound  server. But it would only take one time for a tech to trip or drop that, and then they have to replace a $25,000 piece of equipment that only weighed 50 pounds,” says Budd.  

A server handling lift does the following for data center operations:

  • Speeds up work/efficiency
  • Server support with precise positioning and angling
  • Complies with global regulations

Getting Results with an Assisted Lifting Device

Digital Realty Manager of Remote Hands Services John Scoggins describes the process his operators used to move equipment before they purchased an ALD (assisted lifting device): “When installing a heavy piece of equipment into a cabinet, we would install a temporary equipment shelf using use the two-man rule while we lifted the equipment onto the shelf, to install it at a high-level RU position. Once the equipment was secure, we would remove the shelf.”

Scoggins says their first ALD was purchased when they had to install heavier customer-provided equipment. He says they were also getting requests from customers asking if they had a server handling device to assist with installations. Size and mobility were their top concerns. They now use it for server, switch, and router moves. “It sure makes the job safer and easier when they do use the ALD,” says Walter Leclerc.

Does Every Data Center Need an ALD?

“Any DC that has multiple racks and definitive aisles is probably big enough to benefit from it,” says Budd. “Even if they only need to install or remove a piece of equipment once or twice a year, the risk or chance of getting hurt or damaging something is high enough that it is worth making a one-time capital investment into something that prevents or mitigates against those risks.”

Leclerc says the ALD purchase feeds into that overall cultural change he is fostering within his company, Digital Realty. “I think this is really about the well-being of our employees, our safety culture, and continual improvement.”

Priority and risk variables come into play for safety issues, and they need to be considered before an ALD purchase. DC design is another factor: “How high are the racks? How narrow are the aisles? Is growth part of the business plan? Purchasing something that can do it all is really the number one thing,” says Budd.

Best Practices Leave Manual Lifting Behind

Many DC managers and owners have already made the switch to reduce costs and increase safety. The creation of a safe environment is weighed against budget and often results in a shift in overall mindset.

“What an ALD can do for a DC in terms of efficiency, cost reduction, morale of the staff, is all really just a bonus. At the end of the day, it tends to be a win-win for everyone,” says Budd.

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