Data Center Safety: Proper Safety Measures will Prevent Injury & Protect Equipment

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Steven Leidig, manager of enclosure engineering at Crenlo, discusses how to ensure enclosures and cabinets are safely installed for an article in Processor.

The modern data center is a marvel of computing power, efficiency, and ingenuity. But that doesn’t mean it’s without potential hazards. In fact, it’s largely because of all that power, and the bulk of the equipment that provides it, that data centers are far from completely safe; however, data center managers can make them safer by implementing safety measures across the board.

Server Safety Concerns

Proper safety measures in the data center should start before equipment is even installed, according to Steven Leidig, manager of data center enclosure engineering at Crenlo (www.crenlo.com).

For example, server racks often must follow specific guidelines in order to meet mandated safety requirements, such as the International Building Code. It’s crucial to properly install, ground, and load enclosures and racks according to building height, type of ground material, and seismic category, Leidig says.

Also, most server racks’ weight load capacities are measured as static, with the center of gravity at 30% of the rack’s height, Leidig says. “It’s important to remember that top heavy racks are more susceptible to tipping,” he says. “Also, an enclosure is only as strong as the casters it is sitting on.”

Electricity Matters

Not surprisingly, many of the safety issues in data centers revolve around electricity. Dave Loucks, PCM solution manager at Eaton (www.eaton.com), points out that tight budgets and efficiency initiatives have led many U.S. companies to switch from 120V power to 400V power in their data centers. Although this decreases energy waste, it can also increase the impact of arc flash events.

According to Loucks, arc flashes in a 120V data center generally produce minor wounds, but such accidents in a 400V data center can result in disabling and disfiguring injuries, and even death. To prevent such accidents, Loucks recommends performing a hazard analysis to determine the risk factor in your data center and acting accordingly.

“Proper arc flash safety won’t happen if you don’t accurately measure the potential energy release associated with arc flash events,” he says. An arc flash hazard analysis can help calculate incident energy values and identify arc flash risks along the power chain.

Data center managers without experience with performing arc flash analyses in 400V environments should ask a qualified power systems engineer to help in arc flash hazard analysis, Loucks says.

Loucks also advises making the use of proper safety equipment a priority in your data center. Technicians in a 400V data center should never come within range of a potential arc flash without the right personal protective equipment, such as flame-resistant clothing, eye protection, and gloves.

Listen To OSHA

Data centers share some safety concerns with numerous other work environments.Take, for instance, the danger posed by working around heavy equipment. Not only are heavy servers often stationed above the heads of workers, but equipment is often moved or transferred with insufficient regard for its weight.

“Workers need to follow OSHA guidelines for general industry, since this is the category they fall under,” says Steve Klein, safety director and OSHA outreach trainer for Rubicon Professional Services (www.rubiconps.com). “Servers can weigh anywhere from 20 pounds to hundreds of pounds, so heavy-lifting procedures need to be put in place and followed.”

Klein also advises data center managers to watch out for server hot spots. The average number of fires attributed to hot spots was about 19 per year in the mid-’90s, Klein says, but as facilities have gotten larger and become filled with more servers, those numbers are on the rise.

Fires in the data center typically start because of electrical equipment, component failure, or some sort of human error, such as poor maintenance practices. “Data center managers and technicians need to pay attention to these areas,” he says. “These hot spots have been known to create structural fires. OSHA has great standards, and they can be enhanced by your company’s own management or safety director, so make sure proper procedures are instituted and followed.”

Sweat The Small Stuff

A number of smaller factors can create safety problems in data centers, too—even things that might not occur to managers.

Take the entryways to the data center. Kris Domich, principal data center consultant for Dimension Data Americas, says that it’s essential to authenticate entrants to the data center so that only qualified, authorized personnel have access. “[Having] fewer people in the data center reduces the potential for accidents,” Domich says.

Domich also recommends high-visibility barriers and highly visible exit signs and placards to increase safety. “Many data centers have raised floor tiles, which can be removed in order to service components that reside under the floor,” Domich says. “Data centers should have a stock of markers, such as orange cones, that should be placed around any open floor tiles to alert pedestrians of potential danger.”

Exit signs are taken for granted, but in the event of an emergency, people in the data center should be able to tell how to get out, according to Domich. “This is especially important in data centers that are larger than a small computer room—less than 3,500 square feet—because it can be easy to become disoriented in such rooms.”

And as in any industry, proper employee training is also key to keeping data center workers safe. Organizations should even ensure that any vendors or third-party service providers working in their data centers also receive thorough safety training.

“We can minimize a lot of risks by instituting proper procedures for the data center environment, maintaining training on a yearly basis, and making sure all new employees need to be trained on their job duties,” Klein says.

 
 
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