Alex - stock.adobe.com
Data centers must ensure high availability, zero downtime and 24/7 service. Facility managers and technicians are skilled at maintaining these factors but might not always know all the electrical risks inherent in running a data center, including arc flash and electrocution.
Electrical problems can derail data center operations and, most importantly, cause serious harm to staff. According to the National Safety Council, electrical problems make up 4% of all work-related, non-driving fatalities in the U.S. Data center owners and operators must determine how to support staff safety and maintain availability of mission-critical systems.
Data center owners must take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of their staff. The measures you take to protect your staff can also protect your infrastructure, which, in turn, protects your business operations.
Assessing electrical risks in data centers
Data centers are the domain of IT professionals, not electricians. This means data center pros might not know the broader hazards that come with working with electricity. Aside from the obvious dangers of working on IT infrastructure while it's still plugged in, data center operators can also pose dangers to staff with any of the following actions:
- plugging over- or underpowered equipment into over- or underpowered power supplies;
- not knowing how to shut off and reenergize circuits, racks or aisles;
- asking staff to work with unfamiliar or complex backup batteries and power supply setups;
- having staff work on equipment without lockout or tagout devices and risk unexpected energization, startup or release of stored energy;
- failing to mitigate risk situations that could lead to arc flashes or blasts, such as those with unknown environmental factors, material failures and human errors including negligent maintenance procedures;
- asking staff to work on electrical systems without the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) or electrical safety training that would cover procedures such as removing metal objects from clothing before starting work; and
- enabling staff to work alone.
Electrical safety issues can happen in any data center area during any incident management and disaster recovery process. You must include electrical safety awareness in every process and procedure.
Avoiding electrical hazards
Data center owners and operators should know, understand and follow the critical safety standards for working on electrical equipment, namely NFPA 70 and NFPA 70E; OSHA 1910 Subpart S and Subpart K; and IEEE 1584-2002 for arc flash hazards.
Each electrical standard has critical information that you can use to develop safe work practices that protect staff by reducing exposure to electrical hazards. They include general guidelines for working with electrified equipment, as well as specific information for staff working on the electric circuits and equipment of IT infrastructure.
These standards can show you how to create a safety program with defined responsibilities, outline the details for a safe work environment, explain the correct use of PPE to workers, and mandate the creation and delivery of safety training to all relevant staff. There are also sections on how to provide medical assistance to those injured in electrical accidents, such as shock, electrocution, arc flash and arc blasts.
Good safety standards enable staff to take the necessary precautions when swapping a power cord, installing a new server in a rack, performing maintenance on a backup battery or assessing a data center after a natural disaster.
Staying safe during dangerous electrical work
Electrical safety starts at the top, with data center operators and owners setting the safety benchmark. Your facilities should comply with all relevant electrical safety standards and have the appropriate safety equipment in place, such as PPE, fire extinguishers, informative warning labels and first-aid kits.
Some facilities install more modern electrical equipment to help reduce risks even further, such as finger-safe panelboards and overhead busways with prefabricated junction boxes. These state-of-the-art safety devices prevent and eliminate exposure to live wiring and other electrified components. Staff can maintain these systems without the risk of electrocution and don't need to de-energize large portions of the data center to do so. However, you should still always de-energize the smaller, specific, individual portions of the data center that require attention.
Management adds the next layer of safety by developing appropriate processes and procedures based on the standards. That means they develop and deliver training regularly to staff to ensure awareness of the risks and the safety measures to mitigate them.
The final responsibility lies with data center staff. They can stay safe while working on electrified IT equipment through a combination of safe work practices and adequate and updated training. Staff should always feel comfortable requesting workplace reviews for any and all electrical work and should work collaboratively with colleagues to ensure everyone remains safe.