Order of Protection: People, Planet, then Product?

Pamela Gordon Posted by Pamela Gordon, CEO, Technology Forecasters Inc..

Pamela J. Gordon is CEO of Technology Forecasters Inc., keynoter on profitable sustainability, and co-developer of ProductDesign21.


Order of Protection:  People, Planet, then Product?

Fire at Samsung's PCB Supplier, March 2014

by Pamela J. Gordon

Disaster planning is not an option for serious players in the tech industry. Plans are increasingly required by customers, certification bodies (e.g. AS9100C), insurance companies, and board rooms. Consider the recent fire at Samsung’s printed-circuit-board supplier causing >US$1 billion in lost boards and equipment. But the order of what to protect when planning disaster scenarios is an option.

When I interviewed Linda Gee for my book Lean and Green (she was director of EHS at LSI Logic at the time), she had me look inside small rooms along the periphery of LSI’s Oregon campus that were specially constructed to contain a chemical leak, should one occur. “Our first priority is to save human life, second is to protect the environment, and third is to protect our products,” she explained.

A Timely Test Case: Fire Suppressants
Protection priorities came up this month while completing a Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Plan for Projects Unlimited Inc., an electronics contract manufacturer in Dayton, Ohio, serving aerospace, defense, and commercial- aircraft customers. The plan that Projects Unlimited implemented is designed specifically to protect people first, then the local environment, and then products (case study).

To protect the data servers rooms from being destroyed by fire, the question arose about which systems and materials Projects Unlimited should install, and how the choices would sync up with the plan’s protection priorities:

Water is safe for people and — unless the effluents carry toxins — safe for the environment. However, water conducts electricity. Even when an automatic sprinkler system is coupled with automatic power shut off in data centers, water will tend to ruin computers and other electronics.

Halons are electrically non-conducting and are relied upon to extinguish fire in critical settings, such as on aircraft. So too, halons do not damage electronics as much as does water. However, halon systems score low considering people and the environment: when inhaled, the fumes are toxic, and its chemical reactions damage the Earth’s Ozone layer. “As a result, their manufacture and use have been banned for many years in most countries and non-essential uses have been eliminated” (source).

Proprietary substances are being developed to mitigate issues for human and environmental health, while still efficiently suppressing fire in data centers and other sensitive applications.

DuPont™ created its FM-200® gaseous fire-suppressant system to replace ozone-depleting halon systems. The company makes a strong case for FM-200’s safety for humans, by pointing to its use as a propellant in pharmaceutical inhalers that dispense asthma medications. As for environmental protection, FM200 has hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs); bans or restrictions on this product are in several European countries (e.g. Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland). In 2013, the world’s 20 largest economies endorsed phasing down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, and China has announced aggressive HFC cuts as well. DuPont counters that FM-200 is “the only HFC product approved for fire protection in Germany, a country known for its tough environmental standards.” Also, the company points to the “potentially devastating environmental effects of an uncontrolled fire” as being another “environmental” reason to use their product.

Siemens’ Sinorix™ Waterless Fire Extinguishing system is used to protect electronics (among other “mission-critical” applications), and designed to prevent “collateral damage.” The company’s website says that the system’s Novec 1230 fluid is harmless to humans (not toxic, flammable, or explosive) and the environment: zero ozone-depletion potential, short atmospheric lifetime (only 3-5) days, and a low global-warming potential (rated “1”) — making it exempt from the Kyoto Protocol’s greenhouse gas restrictions.

Obviously, the best solutions for mitigating and recovering from disasters of all kinds — whether industrial spills, fires, violence, or natural disasters — are equally good for people, planet, and products.

Electronics: Part of the Problem, Part of the Solution
True, data centers and other electronics-intensive facilities provide challenges for fire-suppressant systems. Though electronics also enables sensors to detect and extinguish early-stage fires — mitigating damage and equipment downtime. Both DuPont and Siemens have developed early fire detection in their systems. Siemens, which itself is an electronics company, states, “Our state-of-the-art fire suppression systems work with FirePrint™ Intelligent Fire Detectors…featuring advanced micro-processing technology and function similarly to the human brain to discriminate between deceptive phenomena and an actual fire.”

Priorities Must be Set — Even if Never Used
After Linda Gee explained the (1) people, (2) environment, then (3) product priorities, she added, “Fortunately, we have never had to make those priority decisions.” When your company will be faced with these decisions, no one knows. So ensure that your plan is strategic and effective now.

In fact, if disaster does affect your plant or supply chain, you and your key stakeholders will want to know that your company did everything in its power to protect people, planet, and product.

What effective and reasonably-priced solutions do you recommend for fire-suppressant systems for electronics, given the triple factors of people, planet, and product to protect?