Safety and health at work in Data Centers: essential practices for the digital age

13 minutes reading

Issues related to safety and health at work have received increasing attention across all sectors – and are especially critical in the Data Center market. The situation happens because Data Centers are highly complex environments with unique challenges, such as exposure to chemical substances and ergonomic and electrical risks, which require rigorous measures to protect the professionals working in them.

With the expansion of digital infrastructure and the increase in demand for data storage and processing services, driven by the massification of new technologies, the need to maintain solid safety practices at work becomes even more acute. This is not just to ensure the physical well-being of teams but also to ensure the continuous and effective functioning of services vital to the global digital economy.

Due to the importance of the topic, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has celebrated World Day for Safety and Health at Work since April 28, 2003, highlighting the importance of preventing accidents and illnesses in the workplace worldwide. With the initiative, the institution aims to significantly increase awareness about making everyday work more protected and healthy.

April 28 is also the International Day of Commemoration of Dead and Injured Workers, organized worldwide by the trade union movement since 1996 when an explosion in a mine located in Virginia (United States) killed 78 workers.

To better understand the relevance of the security and health agenda in Data Centers, we invited two ODATA experts in Brazil, Fernanda Siqueira, ESG coordinator, and Weliton Alves, EHS coordinator, for a chat about risks, legislation and good practices in the sector.

Check out the full interview below:

The scenario of safety and health at work in the Data Center sector

Before we move on to the interview, it is worth understanding the health and safety scenario in which Data Centers are inserted. Initially, much planning, engineering, and operational maintenance is required to meet the demands of continuous data infrastructure operations. However, the ideal environment for machinery is only sometimes the most suitable for employees.

Using equipment and power systems in Data Centers presents several potential risks, from high-voltage electrical panels to UPS batteries, flammable materials, and activities such as maintenance in elevated locations, moving heavy equipment, and handling fuels.

Therefore, even highly trained professionals can avoid accidents by observing adequate safety procedures.

Risky cocktail

Compliance of business operations with good EHS practices—an acronym for the English term ‘Environment, Health and Safety’—allows the insertion of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards into daily practices. This includes mitigating the most diverse risk situations that employees may be exposed to, such as bad weather—one of the biggest problems of our times.

According to the report Ensuring Safety and Health at Work in a Changing Climate, released in April 2024 by the International Labor Organization (ILA), changes in atmospheric conditions pose a wide range of severe risks to the health of more than 70% of the workforce of global work. Consequences can include cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer, kidney dysfunction and mental health problems.

Thus, the ILO estimates that more than 2.4 billion professionals (out of a global workforce of 3.4 billion) are exposed to excessive heat at some point in their work and that 26.2 million people worldwide live with chronic kidney disease associated with heat stress in the workplace.

So, let’s go to the interview with ODATA’s EHS and ESG experts:

1. What are the main risks for professionals working in the Data Centers market?

Weliton Alves: In general, we can mention:

  • Ergonomic risks: professionals typically spend long periods sitting in front of computers, causing muscle problems, back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain and posture problems;
  • Exposure to chemical agents: some chemicals are used in the routine work of Data Centers. Prolonged exposure to these agents, without protection can pose health risks and, consequently, irritation of the respiratory tract, culminating in lung problems and skin diseases;
  • Risks of electrical accidents: due to exposure, in some way, to electrical equipment, I understand that electric shock is the most significant risk in our routine.

As a rule, as safety measures that help mitigate these risks, ODATA invests in training, use of personal protective equipment and procedures for safe work. Among our main initiatives, it is worth highlighting:

  • Health and safety campaigns;
  • Daily and weekly security dialogues;
  • Key points of high-risk activities;
  • EHS and good practices committees;
  • Internal Work Accident Prevention Week;

Fernanda Siqueira: Working at height is undoubtedly one of our most significant risks. Therefore, here at ODATA, we have strict procedures that regulate how this activity should happen, taking threats to manageable levels. For example, we avoid using ladders as much as possible and lifting work platforms, and scaffolding are inspected daily, with clear signage regarding their condition.

Another relevant risk workers are exposed to when working in Data Centers is the isolation of energy, which requires manoeuvres on the equipment in use.

Our safety design is a differentiator in both cases. Following the hierarchy of controls, we work with engineering to eliminate or reduce them whenever possible from the design stage.

But anyway, the most important thing is that the keyword here is training. We guide our employees in understanding the assessment of the risk to which they are exposed so that they can perceive danger points and continually think about the safest way to carry out an activity, which is our most significant value. We consistently empower everyone in our Data Centers so they know each substep of the task when needed.

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Weliton Alves: The work characteristics are identical, and the legislation is specific for each country, with some variations. In Brazil, for example, we have 38 Regulatory Standards, which are complementary provisions of the Consolidation of Labor Laws (CLT), as worded by Law No. 6,514 of December 22, 1977.

In turn, they derive obligations, rights, and duties to be fulfilled by employers and employees, with the aim of guaranteeing safe and healthy work and preventing illnesses and accidents at work.

3. How important is effective communication in engaging teams about occupational health and safety premises?

Fernanda Siqueira: Communication is one of the fundamental pillars of the safety culture here at ODATA. In addition to perceiving risk and implementing protective measures, we need to communicate the importance of these measures and why they are necessary.

Communicating with peers and managers helps employees discover new ways of carrying out a task and mitigating a threat. Innovation also achieves job security, and disruptive ideas reach the EHS team through dialogue.

We also need to remember that humans tend to reduce their alert zone when they “get used to” a risk—that is when they have been living with it for some time without fuss. Communication is the greatest ally, remembering the need to consistently implement specific measures, such as using PPE.

Finally, training is also promoted through communication. Training risk perception, exercise procedures, regulatory standards, and what to do in emergencies is essential.

This is what we do at ODATA. We work to make communication as effective as possible, promoting language adaptations so the team fully understands it. We also use recognition incentives and learning dynamics, for example, to achieve the more significant objective: the well-being and health of everyone on our premises.

4. How can we create a culture of continuous improvement, changing or cultivating desired behaviours?

Weliton Alves: To establish a culture of continuous improvement in safety and health at work, it is essential to adopt a broad approach incorporating different aspects. Between them:

  • Training: it is necessary to ensure that the employee completes all mandatory training, but is not limited to them. Various types of training, focusing on the specific risks of the worker’s routine and their preventive measures, are fundamental to increasing the culture of preservation. Therefore, it is essential to make sure that the entire team, each within their responsibilities, understands the EHS policy, that the security procedures are continuously updated regarding good practices, as well as the lessons learned;
  • Effective communication: communication channels must always be open to encourage reports of incidents, suggestions for improvements and safety-related concerns. We can include regular meetings, specific committees, a suggestion channel, informative emails and the implementation of an incident management system;
  • Recognition and encouragement: appreciation programs for safe behaviours and good practices adopted by employees contribute significantly to encouraging positive attitudes, which is fundamental in a culture of continuous improvement;
  • Risk analysis: periodic risk assessment is crucial to identify new threats to safety and health at work. This is what helps us implement corrective measures;
  • Promotion of safety culture: it is necessary to cultivate a safety mentality involving all teams; All employees need to feel responsible for protecting each other. Open discussions, encouraging collaboration and highlighting the importance of safety in all activities contribute to this goal;
  • Feedback and learning: One of the wealthiest initiatives is instituting a program that establishes a continuous feedback cycle. In this cycle, lessons learned from incidents and improvements are shared and incorporated into future work practices. This procedure allows learning from experiences and evolution in security approaches.

5. How important is the involvement of senior management in strategic planning for safety and health at work?

Weliton Alves: a committed leadership in occupational health and safety initiatives is the key to success. Leaders need to demonstrate a commitment to the topic with practical actions. Safe behaviours must be modelled, and continuous improvement initiatives must be supported.

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6. What are the main impacts of digital transformation on ESG, particularly on health and safety at work? What can you do to minimize them?

Fernanda Siqueira: We see digital transformation as an ally of ESG, bringing technologies that enhance the area, including occupational health and safety. For example, artificial intelligence can monitor working conditions, virtual reality can eliminate risk situations, and improved data analysis can support actions.

However, we also know that this transformation poses challenges, especially in the social sphere of ESG. Among them, cybersecurity risks and technological unemployment stand out. These topics must be enclosed in the ESG agenda, which must include a robust cybersecurity program and actions that promote digital inclusion in the communities in which the company is located.

7. How can connectivity help improve worker safety and increase organizational productivity?

Weliton Alves: connectivity offers several opportunities to improve worker safety and increase team productivity. Among them, we can mention:

  • Digital tools, such as email, instant messaging, video conferencing and corporate social networks facilitate quick and efficient communication, becoming helpful in situations that require a quick response or collaborative discussion;
  • Using sensors and connected devices allows conditions to be monitored in real-time, making locating workers easier and even detecting dangerous gases, smoke, humidity or extreme temperatures. This enables immediate interventions in unsafe conditions, reducing the risk of incidents;
  • Online learning platforms have been used to train employees, simulating risky situations without the real dangers. This helps to better prepare workers to deal with adverse circumstances and can increase awareness of safety procedures.

8. For 2024, the ILO chose the Impacts of climate change on safety and health at work as the theme for World Safety and Health at Work Day. What are the main risks arising from these variations in the Data Center sector?

Fernanda Siqueira: Climate change imposes extreme events on us more frequently, as we are observing. Therefore, ensuring the safety of workers during this type of incident is a very current challenge.

Within the Data Center sector, this situation appears most during the construction of structures, when workers are exposed to the elements. This means we need to provide healthy working conditions, including in scenarios of intense heat, strong winds, or extreme rainfall. But, of course, this involves planning and preparation. The first step is to understand how these events can affect our professionals. The next step is to learn how to adapt to them. Finally, the next step is to understand how to reduce residual dangers.

ODATA carried out a study on adaptation and mitigation to climatic episodes, and one of the risk assessment rule criteria was precisely workers’ health and safety. So when an extreme event hit Brazil recently (summer heat waves of 2023-2024), we already had a protocol in place. We reinforced hydration points, guaranteed rest between tasks and cancelled activities in two cities when temperatures prevented healthy working conditions.

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9. How do initiatives focused on ESG contribute to mitigating climate change’s impacts on the safety and health of communities surrounding Data Centers and society?

Fernanda Siqueira: ODATA’s ESG initiatives, such as energy efficiency and renewable energy consumption, help combat the climate crisis, which has global consequences. By contributing to the goals of the Paris Agreement, supported by science (SBTi goals), we are ensuring that our actions are sufficient to mitigate the impact of these changes for future generations.

Our climate agenda includes the study of adaptation and mitigation to these changes in atmospheric conditions. In the risk assessment rule, we have criteria (for example, financial and reputation); one of the most relevant is workplace safety. In other words, we understand how extreme weather events will affect the well-being and protection of our employees, as well as the surrounding communities. In this sense, some of the most prominent events in the geographies where we are located are water scarcity and heat waves.

Regarding the issue of insufficient water, our Data Centers have refrigeration in a closed-water system, which guarantees virtually zero water consumption. As for heat waves, we have frequently trained protocols on maintaining healthy operations in these conditions and even when to stop. With this, we guarantee that we face one of the biggest challenges of our century, prioritizing the most critical asset: people.

10. What is the integrated and holistic approach to connecting health, workplace safety and the environment with the future? What does ODATA do to ensure a more sustainable and healthier world for future generations?

Fernanda Siqueira: When we think about the future, the actions to guarantee the well-being of the next generations certainly need to be carried out in the present. Combating climate change, one of the most significant challenges of our times, is the only way to go.

Getting around these transformations involves adapting to risks, such as consuming renewable energy, and mitigating them, such as developing Data Centers that virtually do not consume water. It also necessarily involves the well-being and safety of employees and other stakeholders, which is one of the criteria for assessing the risk of future sustainability.

In this sense, the only possible strategy is holistic, as these factors are closely linked. We also care for the communities we operate in and data security, for example. That is why, at ODATA, we have ESG as a cross-area, wholly integrated into the business. It is to bring this vision into practice, ensuring that actions are taken from a more comprehensive perspective, promoting the company’s resilience.

As a company specializing in Data Center services, innovation is in our DNA. It is the primary tool for us to triumph in the challenges of the digital era, adding value to the businesses of our partners, customers, and investors.

Want to know more about how ODATA can help your company add value to IT operations through
EHS and ESG practices?

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