I don’t suppose that many of you would expect the phrase “moral imperative” to appear in a serious data center related discussion but, sometimes, technological capability must be tempered by human considerations. Now don’t get me wrong, we are decades away from the days in which the disposability of human capital very often viewed as a calculable expense on the part of many firms, but even today, we must sometimes step back and ask ourselves if our processes and procedures remain in synch with our ability to protect our own employees. In terms of data centers, architectural changes and the increasing concerns of downtime prevention and speed of implementation increasingly call for us to evaluate our standards of arc flash safety.
As a brief refresher, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines an arc flash as “the sudden release of electrical energy through the air when a a high voltage gap exists and there is breakdown between conductors” While this certainly doesn’t sound good, when viewed from a real-life perspective the results can be absolutely catastrophic with the production of enormous pressure, sound, light and heat. For those unfortunate enough to be anywhere near and arc flash can see heat reach 35,000 degrees—four times hotter than the sun’s surface. Those same workers can also be exposed to molten shrapnel, and burns, vision and hearing loss can be common physical results of the aftermath.
The logical question to be asked at this point is why is arc flash becoming such an outstanding issue? Rather than a single reason that can easily be identified this increasing risk of arc flash incidents within the data center are the result of a combination of factors. From an architectural perspective, the increase of phased modular data centers, has increased the risk of arc flash due to the adding of equipment, post commissioning, to live (energized) backplane without a shut down. This issue is exacerbated by the high cost of downtime that increasingly has generated a desire on the part of facility’s operators to make changes or modifications without “shutting anything down”. Thus, more work is performed in a live environment than can safely be justified, with the line between troubleshooting and actual maintenance in a live environment becoming increasingly blurred.
Fortunately, preventing the potential for arc flash incidents is more a function of education and process than physical modifications to the site. For many organizations this means staying current on the arc flash assessment portion of their electrical safety procedures. These assessments should require specific guidance on what equipment can be worked on, by whom and in what state. This level of specificity provides the foundation required by many data center managers to ensure that potentially hazardous activities are correctly and that safety is the primary consideration for the work being performed as opposed to making potentially hazardous decisions in the desire to minimize downtime.
Ultimately, per NIOSH, “The organization has a responsibility in preventing arc flash injuries…Organizations have the duty to provide appropriate tools, personal protective equipment, and regular maintenance of equipment and training. A commitment to training is a commitment to safety”. Obviously, the demands of the data center industry continue to press us all to maximize uptime and deliver capabilities faster than ever before. However, there is no higher responsibility for any data center provider than the safety of its employees, and that is…a real moral imperative.