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Data center safety tips to protect staff

Safety in the data center requires organizations to identify and address a variety of risk factors, from electrical systems to staff illness.

Data center facilities pose a variety of risks to the workers who operate them. Understanding proper data center safety is essential to protect staff.

Common risks in data centers include environmental hazards, such as heat, cold and noise, as well as malfunctioning fire suppression and electrical systems. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked new and stringent protocols related to staff health.

Established best practices for data center safety, along with the appointment of a dedicated facility or safety manager, can help teams stay out of harm's way.

Minimize electrical and fire risks

Electrical hazards can seriously harm data center staff. According to the National Safety Council, electrical hazards account for 4% of all work-related, nondriving fatalities in the U.S. Avoid plugging over- or underpowered equipment into over- or underpowered power supplies. Be familiar with circuit shut-off and reenergizing procedures. Don't ask staff to work with any unfamiliar batteries or power equipment. In addition, ensure staff members wear proper PPE when working on electrical systems.

Fire hazards are also a major risk to staff. Fire protection in data centers spans four stages: mitigation, detection, suppression and recovery. Mitigation aims to reduce the risk of a fire before one occurs. To properly mitigate fire risks, avoid storing flammable materials on site and infrared scan electrical components at least annually. Proper fire detection requires smoke detectors so staff can respond to fire threats early and efficiently. Suppress fires with either water or inert gas systems, or both. Have a recovery plan in the event of sudden electrical or fire emergencies.

Questions to ensure data center safety
Ask yourself these questions before engaging in any risky data center facility task.

Always have appropriate safety equipment in place, such as fire extinguishers, warning labels and first-aid kits.

Stay on top of COVID-19 protocols

In 2020, data center teams had to adopt new health and safety procedures in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Pandemic safety measures included creating tiered COVID-19 response plans to account for staff illness and absences, establishing reserve data center teams to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and constantly monitoring staff temperatures and health. Organizations also equipped staff with proper protective gear such as masks, face shields and gloves. Facility managers began to work remotely to reduce the number of staff members on site.

As the world continues to recover from the pandemic, some data centers might loosen these safety measures. For example, some organizations now use rapid COVID-19 tests rather than monitor staff temperatures. Others have transitioned to more relaxed -- although still rigorous -- cleaning schedules.

Organizations should, however, remain cognizant of the World Health Organization's safety recommendations. Encourage employees to get vaccinated and to continue using personal safety measures at work, such as masking, hand-washing and distancing when possible. Invest in better remote management tools as remote work becomes more normalized.

Appoint a facility manager

Facility managers play an important role in ensuring data centers run safely and efficiently. A facility manager oversees the data center and monitors the systems within it, such as those for HVAC, power, security and mechanical operations. The facility manager is also responsible for environmental health and safety, personnel management, emergency preparedness, change management, energy management and financial management.

The facility manager must collaborate with IT admins to ensure the data center runs smoothly. This individual should understand data center design principles, industry best practices, data center infrastructure management tools and emerging technologies. A facility manager should be intimately acquainted with all safety procedures and guidelines and be able to effectively communicate those procedures and guidelines to staff to ensure they are met.

In some cases, to properly assess risks in the data center, the facility manager might assign and work with a dedicated safety leader. This individual should develop and implement safety training programs, as well as monitor and comply with safety standards and practices.

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