The Safe Sysadmin: Tools to Save Your Body

A computing infrastructure consists not only of computers and peripherals, but how they are housed. There are a number of potential physical hazards to address:

  • ergonomics
  • lifting and moving heavy components
  • electricity
  • trip hazards
  • access to plugins and panels
  • hard floors
  • cold temperatures and air circulation
  • Saving The Precious Sysadmin Back
  • And incidentally, saving the precious expensive components.

I’ve seen the same job requirements as you- “Must be able to life 75 pounds.” I beg to differ. I prefer “must be versed in safety procedures and proper lifting tools.” No matter how physically strong you are, computer pieces are awkward to lift. They are bulky, oddly shaped, and have no handles. There is no safe way for a single person to lift, say, a large CRT monitor unassisted. Let alone transport it any distance.

This is where lift carts are worth their weight in gold. They come in all sizes and all capacities. Crank it up to the level of the component being moved, place it on the cart, and away you go. Reverse routine at its destination. They also provide a place to put all the cables and other dangly trip hazards. Ideally, very heavy or awkward items will be loaded and unloaded by two people.

The most common complaint I hear is “marketing keeps stealing our carts.” A five-dollar bike lock ought to take care of that!

So, where do the nice computers go after their ride on the lift cart? In my experience, this is the most-overlooked part. More than once I have witnessed the sad aftermath of a shelf or rack collapse.

Not only must the shelves and racks be sturdy enough to bear the load, they must be correctly installed and anchored. If it’s particle wood, forget it! Metal all the way. The sturdiest are free-standing, anchored to walls and floors to prevent tipping. Walls alone should not bear the weight, the weight should be on the floor. There are all kinds of sturdy free-standing racks on lockable wheels, my personal favorite. If it’s next to a wall, it is good to be able to pull it out to get to the behind parts. Nice wide aisles prevent unexpected butt contact with delicate or dangerous things, and give room to move things around.

What kind of floor do you have? A concrete floor of course is immune to everything. But if you are on a raised floor, with wiring and cabling underneath, hopefully it is sturdy and installed correctly. If you’re not sure, if it feels rather more like a trampoline than a floor, it might pay to hire an expert to inspect it.

Floors and Backs
Hard floors can really hurt: feet, back, neck- remember, it’s all connected. Standing is harder on your feet and spine than walking or running. Good shoes help (steel toes have saved many a painful injury), and rubber mats. If you’re moving around to work at different consoles, a tall stool is often more comfortable and convenient than a desk chair. Get a wheeled stool and have some fun. Which segues nicely into….

Ergonomic Assessment
Setting up your personal office or workstation to suit your personal health is not sissy, but smart. If your employer offers an ergonomic assessment, use it. Using an expert will ensure a correct assessment, and add clout to any request for new equipment. Many users are finding that a raised desk with a tall stool works better than the traditional desk and chair. The stool is just tall enough so that your feet are flat on the floor, with rungs to give additional foot parking options; in effect, it’s a supported standing position.

Servers often get the hand-me-down, junk monitors. This is not fair to your eyeballs or sanity. You deserve good-quality monitors, send the junk ones to a recycler. It is not always easy to judge the quality of a display by eye, and all it takes is small lack of focus to cause problems. There are several good tools for objectively measuring the image quality of a monitor. Sometimes it is the video card or drivers, be sure to check all three.

Lighting is the most overlooked aspect- those 49-cent, glare-white fluorescents that are so beloved of frugal building management are the worst. Fluorescent tubes flicker at a different rate than CRTs, so they are the fast-track to eyestrain and headaches. Full-spectrum daylight tubes behind a diffuser are much better. Even better is full-spectrum incandescent lighting. Both are better for your overall health- humans need light; when we spend most of our time under artificial light, make it as good as possible.

The other overlooked aspect is air quality. Building managers often turn the air circulation down to a minimum to save money. I’ve never quite grasped the concept of poor air quality as a reasonable cost-cutting measure. Talking nicely to maintenance people will enable you to collect all sorts of useful information.

Server rooms are often chilly. Good for machines, not so good for humans. Dress for the occasion, and take outside warmup breaks. Humans are meant to move, not sit motionless for hours at a time. Regular activity breaks are good for mental and physical health.

Trip Hazards
There’s a reason for all those bags of twist ties and miles of conduit for sale in the computer store: neatness = safety.

Electricity, or, How Not To Be a Frybaby
The wise sysadmin eschews do-it-yourself wiring, and employs a real electrician. The wise sysadmin heeds proper lockout/tagout procedures, and obeys said electrician without question. Some things to be aware of:

  • proper grounding procedures
  • how to allocate circuit loads, to avoid overloading circuits and power strips. If you don’t know how to do this, ask your friendly electrician
  • use proper insulated tools for any electrical work, especially hot-testing. A knife blade is not a screwdriver, and teeth are neither wire-strippers nor crimpers.

This article is dedicated to my fellow sysadmins who have graciously shared their personal horror stories with me, as well as much good advice. This subject seemed like a no-brainer, one of those “well of course it must be done this way,” subjects, but apparently out there in the real world it is not always so. I hope those who control the purse strings will keep in mind that prevention is always the most cost-effective.

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