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Safety planning for the data center

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / Gorodenkoff)

The data center industry is chock full of great information and insights about everything from electrical systems design and service availability to cloud connectivity and power density. Data center safety however, can influence all of those other subjects and more, and deserves a seat at the prioritization table.

That’s because data centers are generally finely engineered facilities, nations of concrete and metal that tend to be sparsely populated and can lull many in the industry into a false sense of security so that safety often plays second-fiddle to capacity and scale.

But within those facilities is a range of sophisticated, high-powered electrical and mechanical systems that can pose significant risk of physical harm to workers and to the building itself if they’re not properly managed. Critical equipment such as backup batteries, generators, and uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) are present in every data center large or small and failure among any of them can have significant impacts on long-term data center performance, availability, and reputation.

Understanding how to safely maintain exterior generators or rooftop chillers that contain odd angles or tight working quarters aren’t immediately top-of-mind for most data center designers or construction crews that build these facilities. As a result, some facility operators have not committed the time and resources to implementing safety procedures and guidelines in the full design and construction package, assuming they’ll eventually get to it when resource availability and circumstances permit.

As on-the-job injuries and fatalities continue be a concern, everyone in the data center space — especially those on the construction side of the business — should evaluate their priorities and strategize ways of making safety a core feature of their operations instead of a mere afterthought.

Essential steps for getting past overconfidence and too much risk tolerance

While data center operations personnel have their own fair share of safety issues to worry about, prioritizing safety is also important on the construction side of the business.

Because construction teams tend to work on new sites for every project, it’s understandable that they’ll think mostly in broad strokes about how the work will get done rather than familiarizing themselves with the nuances and details of each particular location. After doing the same kind of work repeatedly across projects and sites, it’s easy for construction workers to become comfortable with the risks of their jobs — heights or unstable objects and surfaces, among many others — and get overconfident and lax on safety.

Fortunately, data center safety is beginning to take on more importance and greater visibility among industry leaders like major hyperscale data center owners and other industry visionaries. The renewed interest is driven, in part, by the return on investment (ROI) of formal safety programs, which can save companies as much as $15 million in potential litigation costs alone.

More importantly, they’re recognizing that safe employees are healthy, happy, and productive ones who are more likely to stay with the team longer, produce high-quality work, and help reinforce safety best practices across the organization. With that in mind, here are three best practices for planning, implementing, and maintaining a robust safety program in your facilities.

Like most business best-practices, data center safety starts at the top and permeates the entire organization until it eventually becomes a natural part of the company culture.

Usually, this step starts with creating and defining your safety program. Designating a safety champion or environmental, health, and safety (EHS) advocate who will oversee and push for the creation and rollout of a formal safety program. But it also depends heavily on how well the company, as a whole, is able to instill the value of safety in its teams and how often and thoroughly they promote it across the organization.

The EHS program (and probably a team that works with them) is responsible for understanding the various operational elements of the data center and comparing them with industry safety regulations and corporate policies to identify gaps. From there, they’ll need to formalize the safety plan, seek executive sponsorship from C-level leaders, and formulate a rollout strategy that includes:

  • Promoting the program and the reasons for its implementation
  • Delivering initial and ongoing training for every employee, contractor, and partner
  • Codifying best practices and expectations
  • Creating feedback and incident reporting channels
  • Scheduling regular policy reviews for continuous improvement

You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been, the old saying goes. This is especially true in data center construction and operations, which feature safety risks overt and hidden from electrical, mechanical, and even hazardous materials around every corner.

Thoroughly documenting the general hazards and risks specific to particular job functions or departments is vital for creating control measures that eliminate or mitigate the risk. This step also includes testing systems and machinery to assess their health and even re-evaluating the current testing and maintenance procedures themselves to ensure they’re done in the least risky way possible.

Root-cause analysis (RCA) is already part of the daily lives of data center operators. After an outage or interruption, teams invest time and effort into understanding what happened and identify the steps they can take to prevent further events.

The same should happen when it comes to safety. Any time there’s an event — whether it’s an employee reporting that he or she feels uncomfortable or uncertain about a risk or it’s an actual safety incident — data center teams should invest the time and energy into a full root cause analysis to better understand what happened and address it proactively by updating policies and procedures in the safety plan.

While other industries may have been more eager and faster to adopt safety-first messaging and business practices, the movement within the data center space is starting to gain momentum.

Data center developers and operators, along with other forward-thinking industry leaders are increasingly realizing that workplace safety isn’t the hindrance to productivity and profitability they once thought it was, but rather a business enabler and the right thing to do.

Over time, they’ll recognize that baking safety into the entire data center lifecycle — from design and construction through to maintenance and daily management — will chip away at the longstanding, but mistaken notion that speed and safety are mutually exclusive. More importantly, adopting safety-always philosophy will help to transform their business culture into one that enables them to improve productivity, profitability, and work quality all while reducing their risk of injury to their people and their brand.

Kayla Remington, Director of Development, Stack Infrastructure