Lots of data center companies talk the talk about safety, but how many actually walk the walk?

Some data center companies spend more time and money on marketing themselves as safety leaders rather than prioritizing and achieving a safe and healthy work environment. This form of safety-washing – a real phenomenon whereby companies deceive safety-conscious consumers into believing their products or services are “safe,” when, in fact, safety is just a clever marketing tactic or secondary concern.

On the other hand, true safety leadership is about protecting people and a sound business strategy. It involves fostering a culture of safety, setting clear expectations, and providing the necessary resources and support to ensure the well-being of employees, customers, contractors, visitors, and the work environment.

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– Sebastian Moss

With movements afoot to improve safety programs globally, the emphasis by many data center companies to improve their safety programs is apparent, but are they really safety leaders?

Data center companies that truly “get it” have effective safety leadership from top to bottom. Safety leadership is often identified by initiative-taking engagement at all levels of an organization to create a shared commitment to safety. It typically involves implementing advanced and innovative technologies, such as AED remote monitoring systems, digital LOTO, incident monitoring solutions, robotic exoskeletons, and wearables as examples, in addition to the pursuit of best-in-class solutions for everything they do.

These data center companies are not looking to reduce or dumb down their safety programs to simple, reactive/transactional tasks and exchanges. Instead, they spearhead initiatives and join like-minded cohorts to address safety and its impact on their working environment. They go beyond mere compliance and standards such as ISO 45001, IFC, etc. and create systems, programs, and practices within their own organizations that eliminate (rather than add) layers of bureaucracy in addressing problems. Finally, effective safety leadership promotes a culture that values the health and welfare of people and the work environment as its top priority; it is not just some buzz words in a company slogan, mission statement and/or policy.

Here are some key aspects of safety leadership to consider:

  • Leading by example: For data centers, operational focus is no longer just about capacity and uptime; a true commitment to safety is now a required core value. Safety leadership is about being proactive. It means imparting a sense of urgency, even in the absence of incidents, to demonstrate that achieving actual results quickly, matters. This includes meeting or exceeding standards by adhering to personal safety protocols and practices. Leaders must demonstrate their commitment to safety through their actions, making it clear that maintaining the highest levels of safety is non-negotiable. Great leaders have integrity and deeply care about their people. They regularly demonstrate the value of safety through consistent communication, which includes following up on safety results, site visits, lessons learned discussions, round table meetings, and recognition of safety performance. If your leaders are overwhelmed, too busy, distracted by side-shows, their teams are floundering and/or have mission drift, etc., it means you have the wrong leaders; they are not willing to make the tough decisions to protect people and safety is not that important to your organization.

Can your data center company and its leaders pass the “lead by example” test?

  • Creating a safety culture: Great safety leadership works to establish a culture where safety is embedded into the fabric of the organization. Open communication and active participation are encouraged while employee engagement and empowerment to identify and mitigate potential hazards are promoted. Creating a safety culture does not happen overnight; it requires a solid foundation and a deep, honest commitment to safety. It includes active safety program participation, adequate resources, and support, a willingness to report concerns, education, and access to related information, freedom from the fear of retaliation, and empowerment to shut down tasks team members may feel are unsafe (arc flash events are real and dangerous, and so are falls from height), and encouragement to share their stories. If your data center and its leaders are not safety-oriented, you can forget about building a legitimate safety culture.

What is the status of your safety culture? Can your employees discuss problems openly and freely with the head boss?

  • Communication: The data center business is global, growing, and fast-paced. A knowledgeable workforce that marches to the same drum is a competitive advantage. Great safety leadership ensures that effective communication channels are in place to disseminate safety-related information to all levels of the organization. It goes beyond general and basic information or throwing around catchphrases like “safety first” to check a box; it requires the willingness of leaders to be vulnerable, admit mistakes, and advocate the safety interests of everyone so that decision-making can then be disseminated throughout the organization. A select few leaders making decisions in a vacuum does not work. The data center companies that “get it” usually have a communication plan in place that is policy-driven so that all stakeholders (internal and external) are provided with timely and critical safety information.

How is your data center safety strategy and plan communicated?

  • Training and Development: Data center companies that do safety well know that traditional “one-size-fits-all” training and development programs are ineffective. Whether it is on-the-job, in-classroom, or online, lengthy information dumps do nothing but overload personnel. Generic courses simply force folks to sit through a bunch of irrelevant content in hopes that they find their own nuggets of gold. It even gets more challenging when needing to execute training and development globally because of the different languages, country requirements, cultures, etc. The result is that personnel leave sessions frustrated, often no further ahead, and with no way to reinforce what they have learned. Basically, there is no point to traditional training programs other than to mark it as “done.” The new, effective approach is to use knowledge-centric/role-based training to create a more holistic and continuous developmental system. For example, everyone should know that a forklift must be inspected prior to use. But what does that really mean? How should a proper, pre-use forklift inspection be performed? Is it just completing a checklist? Knowledge-centric/role-based training and development provides standardized, policy-driven comprehension and skills/core competency, as well as expanded capabilities for personnel - a far cry from generic forklift safety training. This methodology can also be tied to coaching, mentoring, and specific job performance outcomes, and it can even be adopted and integrated with basic and foundational regulatory safety training such as electrical safety, competent person fall protection, CPR/AED/FA, etc.

Ask yourself, is your data center company just delivering safety training or are you helping personnel build, sustain, share, and apply knowledge to have a measurable impact on your business?

  • Risk assessment/hazard recognition, evaluation, and control: When asked, most safety professionals would say that risk assessment/hazard recognition, evaluation, and control are what great safety leadership is all about. Safety leadership promotes a proactive approach to risk assessment/hazard identification, evaluation, and control in terms of the work environment (the surroundings of the workers), the people doing the work, equipment/materials used in the work area/process, and the processes/practices themselves. An example in a data center construction environment is the initiative-taking management of pre-construction requirements and specifications. Drilling down more specifically, it is about identifying, preventing, and controlling high-risk activities (HRAs) prior to work commencing rather than simply, for instance, conducting virtual site inspections and reacting and resolving issues as they are identified in the field during construction.

Can you honestly say your data center company and its leaders have their hands around operational and construction risk assessment/hazard recognition, evaluation, and control?

  • Accountability and recognition: Effective safety leadership establishes clear expectations for safety performance using leading (e.g., training completion and effectiveness, audit results, regulatory inspection outcomes, etc.) and lagging (e.g., injury frequency and severity, lost workdays, etc.) indicators and holds individuals and teams accountable for their actions. For the data center companies that “get it,” KPIs = Keep People Informed – Keep People Involved – Keep People Interested – Keep People Inspired. They also recognize and reward employees who demonstrate exemplary safety behavior and encourage continuous improvement in safety practices.

Does your data center company truly have top to bottom, team and individual performance goals and objectives established?

  • Collaboration and teamwork: Fostering collaboration and teamwork rather than politics amongst employees to address safety challenges collectively are indicators of strong safety leadership. Open dialogue, active participation in safety committees or teams, employees having a say, and sharing best practices are encouraged. Senior leaders who just “talk” safety, give lip service to teamwork and fail to really involve others in critical decisions. By involving employees in the safety decision-making processes, leaders promote a sense of ownership and collective responsibility. It is about mutual trust! Real teamwork involves combining the efforts of each team member to reach a shared objective. Unfortunately, not every leader truly understands this basic principle of effective safety leadership.

Does your data center company and its leaders appreciate the long-lasting benefits of collaborative teamwork?

  • Continuous improvement: Embracing the concept of continuous improvement in safety performance cannot be understated. Leaders who assess their safety program at all levels, including analyzing leading indicators as well as incident data, and seek feedback from employees and others to identify areas for improvement, are at the forefront of a robust safety culture. It cannot be about speed and getting things done or you will fail in the long run. It needs to be about getting it right and listening to your employees, not attacking the messenger because you are an insecure leader. Further, closing the loop by taking feedback and information to optimize safety performance is equally important. Improvement can be incremental or a breakthrough improvement all at once; but, if feedback and information are never acted upon, then your data center company is just talking/giving lip service to safety and its leaders are ineffective.

Does your data center company collect feedback and then honestly implement proactive changes/improvements to your safety strategies and processes to prevent future incidents and/or strengthen your safety program?

  • Safety leadership involves engaging and inspiring individuals and organizations to prioritize safety, creating a culture of safety, providing necessary resources and training, and continually improving practices. Through effective safety leadership, organizations can reduce accidents, enhance the well-being of their workers, promote a positive and productive work environment, and achieve safety excellence, all while maximizing uptime and reducing operational and construction risk.

Or more simply, if you build and operate your data center right with a laser focus on safety as a core value, your employees, customers, contractors, and visitors will go home the way they came, and the profits will follow for your stakeholders!

Is your data center company really an industry leader by demonstrating safety leadership or are they just talking the talk?