Electrical Safety in Data Centers
By: Mike Enright
If you’ve ever seen the show Silicon Valley on HBO, you’ve likely seen just how hard it is to run a technology company. Despite looking at the tech startup world through a satirical lens, the show does display just how hard it is to get a startup up and running.
From finding skilled coders and system architects to fighting off corporate giants, the show does shine light on a variety of topics. One of these topics dealt with the physical part of the business—data centers, server rooms, and just how hard it is to keep this side of the business from failing. Initially running a home-baked data center in the garage, they move to a traditional data center after a stream on their site goes viral and almost sets the house on fire.
Keeping a Data Center Running is a Team Effort
So what does this have to do with electrical safety at data centers? A few things. First, while so much focus is on the software side of the equation, few have the skills to run massive server farms and data centers and even fewer know how to make repairs if something goes wrong.
With so much of the focus on the cloud being the benefits it provides to the users—lower costs, high availability, and access anywhere—fewer talk about the work it takes to provide these benefits. Ensuring three, four, or in some cases five nines in the cloud requires infrastructure, constant power supply, and minimized time to repair.
This is especially true for the electricians and electrical construction people who provide services to data centers. Maintenance is critical, and repairs need to be completed quickly and within hours of a call. When you receive a call, it’s all hands on deck. Even so, you can’t forget the importance of safety.
The Dangers of Arc Flash Incidents in a Data Center
Data centers host billions of dollars in data and even the smallest hiccup could lose these companies hundreds of thousands of dollars. Uptime guarantees need to be met and data centers cannot simply turn off electricity to mission-critical servers if they need to be accessed or serviced.
When All Work is Hot Work: Data Center Dangers and the Risk of Overconfidence
Knowing this, facility managers and technicians in the industry are skilled at managing the infrastructure that supports these goals, including essential electrical and mechanical systems that are paramount to maintaining the availability of business-critical systems.
For electricians or other service professionals who service HVAC, electrical supply, or distribution for data centers, this often means hot work. Your workers have become incredibly familiar with filling out hot work permits. They also have likely become incredibly familiar with working hot.
Repetition is great. A worker who has completed a task 5,000 times is more likely to complete the task more safely than a worker who has done it 50 times. Unfortunately, repetition causes its own risks.
- A worker may take a shortcut or fail to take a necessary precaution.
- An overconfident worker may balk at the idea of putting on electrical PPE for what he considers a simple task.
- A worker could be repeating something incorrectly.
- A worker’s brain may enter autopilot/fast brain mode.
It only takes one slip for something to go terribly wrong. A dropped tool, a careless mistake, dust enters the equation and boom, the worker’s life changes forever.
Downtime, Damage, and Possible Death
When an arc flash occurs in a data center, there is a significant amount of electricity around. As the arc flash is happening, it can melt and even vaporize conductive material and with enough energy, can lead to an arc blast. An arc blast is the result of the expansion of metal as it vaporizes. An arc blast can cause additional injury and equipment damage as well as downtime.
The astronomical growth in data center power use — and the huge electrical supply sources they require — creates the potential for bigger and more dangerous electric arcs, and more places where they can cause damage.
Resources: Protecting Electrical Workers in Your Data Centers
Like any other industry, data center operators need to take logical steps to protect workers from the dangers of arc flash. So many elements go into completing any electrical project, which means that many things can arise that make a job become unsafe. From finding a way to deenergize equipment if at all possible to implementing other controls, there are many ways to increase data center safety:
- Start with the Hierarchy of Controls: The hierarchy of risk control methods has been a common theme in the safety world. Starting with the control immune to human error (elimination), the goal of this is to start at the top and move down find the most feasible method. Learn more about the Hierarchy of Controls in NFPA 70E
- Complete an Arc Flash Risk Assessment and Hazard Analysis: It pays to understand the dangers present at your data center. This makes the completion of a risk assessment and hazard analysis so important in protecting workers. Completed every five years or any time a major modification is made to the facility this process involves identifying a hazard, estimating the likelihood of occurrence and severity of injury, and determining what measures are needed. Learn more.
- Understand Human Performance and Human Error: According to a 2014 presentation by human performance expert Shane Bush, unwanted outcomes are 80% the result of human error and 20% the result of equipment failures. Learning how humans behave and taking steps to mitigate risk are necessary to protect them, and NFPA added this in their latest edition of 70E.
- Build a Culture of Electrical Safety: One of the most important ways to increase the likelihood that a worker embraces safety is to develop a culture that instills it. Our guide to developing a culture of electrical safety explores the necessary components that go into this and offers tips for all industries including yours.
- Improve Your electrical PPE: There are many excuses employees will make for not wearing the right PPE for the job. Whether it’s overconfidence or discomfort, many will skirt the issue of donning appropriate electrical PPE when completing small or quick tasks. However, there are ways to address this. Whether this consists of simplifying the options (offering a 40 CAL suit for all jobs) or working to select products that increase comfort, the right PPE can reduce risk.
- Learn from Your Peers: If you’re like many companies, getting workers to embrace electrical PPE is a challenge. For data center-focused HVAC provider Therma, they faced this challenge too—until they found Enespro PPE. Get to know more about their story here.
Get to Know Enespro PPE: The Best Last Line of Defense
At Enespro PPE, we have designed a complete line of USA made Arc Rated Personal Protective Equipment for different levels of exposure from 8 to 65 cals, and offer Class 00, 0 and 2 rubber voltage rated glove & leather protector kits for your protection as well.
Learn more about our complete range of innovative electrical safety products and subscribe to our newsletter for all of the latest Arc Flash safety news.
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