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5 Disasters That Were Caused By Sleep Deprivation

Workers cleaning up Exxon Valdez spill

Sleep deprivation is one of the worst things you can do for your health. It can contribute to a host of problems including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and weakened immunity. It can also cause serious issues with memory and hurts your ability to make decisions.

Getting insufficient sleep is known to play a role in all kinds of automobile and industrial accidents. Most of these small-scale tragedies go unreported, but there have been a few incidents that are so horrific that they make international news and even alter the course of history. Here are the top five disasters that were caused by sleep deprivation.

#5. Chernobyl

Chernobyl

Everyone knows what happened at Chernobyl: a nuclear reactor melted down, causing an unprecedented environmental and public health catastrophe. The April 26, 1986 disaster is one of the most well-known industrial accidents in human history and is single-handedly responsible for changing the general population’s perception of nuclear energy from positive to negative.

What many people aren’t aware of is the fact that this accident is the result of sleep deprivation. The engineers who were on duty at the time of the explosion were on duty for 13 hours straight. The catastrophe officially began at 1:43 AM, a time when the workers were likely feeling drowsy and were unable to think straight.

Sleep deprivation directly affects your ability to make decisions, meaning that you’ll make mistakes that you wouldn’t make when well-rested. In this case, sleep deprivation led to one of the worst accidents in history. When workers failed to heed the warning signs, a power surge led to an explosion that blew the top off of the reactor and led to a meltdown that killed a still-undetermined number of innocent people.

Twenty-four years later, Chernobyl still stands as the most prominent example of the consequences of sleep deprivation. If the workers were well-rested and working at the beginning of their shift this accident may never have occurred. Unfortunately we can’t turn back the clock so we’ll never know for sure, but it’s reasonable to assume that lack of sleep played a major role.

#4. American Airlines Flight 1420 crash

American Airlines Flight 1420

As the clocked ticked closer towards midnight on June 1, 1999 American Airlines Flight 1420 prepared to land at Little Rock National Airport. The flight had been delayed for a couple hours due to inclement weather, but that shouldn’t have been a problem for Captain Richard Buschman, the chief pilot who had logged 10,234 flight hours (half of those on the MD-80 series of aircraft that he was flying that night).

The crew noticed lightning while approaching the Arkansas airport, and air traffic controllers issues a weather advisory indicating that there were severe thunderstorms in the area. The crew had two options: either divert the flight to the designated alternate airport (Nashville International Airport) or expedite the approach in an attempt to beat the worst of the weather. After a brief discussion, the crew decided to go forward with landing at Little Rock as previously planned.

A thunderstorm appeared over the airport as the plane approached. The first officer on the flight notified air traffic control that the crew had lost visual sight of the runway. The controller cleared Flight 1420 to use an Instrument Landing System (ILS) to land the aircraft.

The crew on the airplane rushed to land and seemingly inexplicably forgot to complete the aircraft’s pre-landing checklist. The flight crew failed to arm the automatic spoiler system, which removes the spoiler control lever and deploys the spoilers when the plane lands. The pilots failed to set the automatic braking system. First Officer Michael Origel didn’t notice that the landing flaps were not set until the plane descended below 1,000 feet, at which point the flaps were set to a 40-degree setting for the landing.

Two seconds after the wheels touched down Origel exlaimed “We’re down. We’re sliding!” Because the crew did not deploy the spoilers, only 15 percent of Flight 1420’s weight was supporter by the plane’s landing gear. The landing gear would normally support 65 percent of the plane’s weight. This light loading of the landing gear meant that the plane’s brakes couldn’t slow the plane down enough to stop on the runway.

Flight 1420 slid 800 feet past the runway and collided with a building that crushed the aircraft’s nose and left side of the fuselage from the cockpit back to the first two rows of economy-class seating. The captain and 10 passenger were killed while 100 people were injured, including First Officer Origel and all four flight attendants.

What the hell happened?

The NTSB report stated that fatigue played a critical role in the crash. The captain had been awake for 16 hours, and research showed that pilots make more mistakes after being up for 13 hours. The crash occurred hours after both pilots’ usual bedtime. The first officer stated that he was feeling tired that night and a yawn was heard on the CVR. According to the report, sleep-deprived people tend to problem solve by trying the same solution over and over again instead of looking at alternate options. This is a terrible situation for someone who is responsible for human lives while they work.

Contributing to the accident were the flight crew’s (1) impaired performance resulting from fatigue and the situational stress associated with the intent to land under the circumstances, (2) continuation of the approach to a landing when the company’s maximum crosswind component was exceeded, and (3) use of reverse thrust greater than 1.3 engine pressure ratio after landing,” the report concluded.

#3. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Exxon Valdez oil spill

The Exxon Valdez oil spill is one of the most notorious shipping accidents in human history. When the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker owned by Exxon Shipping Company, collided with Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989, 10.8 million gallons of crude oil spilled out into the waters 1.5 miles off the coast of Alaska.

Captain Joseph Hazelwood was not at the controls of the ship on that fateful day. Rumors circulated saying that Hazelwood was heavily intoxicated after drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, but he was cleared of those allegations during a 1990 trial after witnesses testified that he was sober that night.

Perhaps we’ll never know the exact reason why Captain Hazelwood wasn’t at the controls on that day in 1989. For better or worse, Third Mate Gregory Cousins controlled the ship that day. Cousins had only slept 6 hours in the last two days proceeding the accident. As the Exxon Valdez approached the reef, Cousins failed to properly maneuver the ship and it crashed, spilling the crude into the ocean in the second-worst oil spill in human history.

A contemporary news report stated that the crew had just put in a grueling 22 hour shift before departing Alaska and that the Third Mate should not have been legally allowed to control the ship due to his sleep deprivation.

“We’ve looked at some of the literature on the Exxon Valdez and of course the main point is that the timing of the accident was consistent with a sleep related or fatigue related error,” said scientific director of the Scripps Clinic Sleep Disorders Center Dr. Merrill Mitler.

The disaster killed up to 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea otters, 12 river otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, 22 orcas, and countless salmon and herring. All of that environmental destruction could have been avoided if the crew of the ship took their sleep seriously.

#2. Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

Space shuttle Challenger disintegrating

On a cool winter day in 1986 millions of Americans tuned in to watch a live TV broadcast of the Challenger space shuttle. Launches of this type weren’t typical TV fare, but the Challenger was carrying a rather unique passenger – schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe – the first teacher in space.

On the day of launch – January 28 – everything seemed to go according to plan. Tragedy struck when the Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crewmembers aboard. In addition to McAulliffe, the crew consisted of five NASA astronauts and a payload specialist.

The vehicle disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Canaveral, FL at 11:39 a.m. EST. The spacecraft began to disintegrate after a joint in its right solid rocket booster failed during liftoff. It turns out that the o-ring seals used in the joint weren’t designed to handle the unusually cold conditions on that morning in January. This leak led to the structural failure of the external fuel tank and aerodynamic forces broke up the orbiter.

The shuttle had no escape system and it’s believed that several of the crew survived the initial breakup. The force of the impact on the ocean was powerful enough to kill the survivors. The crew cabin was found on March 7 with the bodies of the astronauts who were in a “semi-liquefied state that bore little resemblance to anything living”. Lt. Cmdr. James Simpson reported that he found a helmet with ears and a scalp inside.

The infamous disaster led a 32-month pause in the shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission to investigate the cause of the fatal accident.

The commission determined that cultural and mechanical processes caused the disaster. But one thing that many people missed was that sleep deprivation played a massive role in the tragic incident. Navy Capt. Rick Davenport, quoted by William C. Dement in the book The Promise of Sleep said the following:

“… But not well known at all is the fact that the Human Factors Subcommittee attributed the error to the severe sleep deprivation of the NASA managers. This conclusion was only included in the committee’s final report, which only noted that top managers in such situations are generally the ones who sacrifice the most sleep.”

(Captain Rick Davenport, The Promise of Sleep by William C. Dement)

The Rogers Commission Human Factors Finding mentioned that “The willingness of NASA employees in general to work excessive hours, while admirable, raises serious questions when it jeopardizes job performance, particularly when critical management decisions are at stake.”

While there were many factors that contributed to the Challenger disaster, it’s clear that sleep deprivation played a role. People who view themselves as “hard workers” (i.e. anyone who works for NASA) like to believe that being sleep deprived is a sign of toughness and dedication to their job. Would the crew still be alive today if the managers at NASA slept properly? We’ll never know.

#1. Michigan Train Crash

Michigan train crash (2001)

Engineer Alan Nash and conductor Jess Enriquez were operating a Canadian National freight train southbound to Detroit on an early morning trip on November 15, 2001. The train was traveling at 13 mph when the two men failed to slow for a stop signal or the lights from an oncoming train. They collided with another Canadian National train traveling 30 mph northbound to Flint, killing two men in the oncoming train. Both Yash and Enriquez were hospitalized with serious injuries.

The National Transportation Safety Board conducted an investigation and uncovered something disturbing: the two men were both suffering from severe obstructive sleep apnea. Both men were diagnosed by their private physicians and neither had disclosed the condition to their employers. The report found that neither of them had been successfully treated.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) causes a person to stop breathing periodically while sleeping. People suffering from this condition will feel extremely tired during the day and can drift off into sleep during monotonous situations in a quiet environment, according to Dr. Mitch Garber, a member of the NTSB’s investigation team.

Yash’s doctor told him that he would most likely fall asleep on the job, but he ignored the physician’s recommendations to attend a sleep clinic.

Enriquez, on the other hand, did receive treatment at a sleep clinic and was given an air-pumping mask to wear at night. He still suffered from snoring and sleeplessness, which indicates that the mask may not have been set at the correct pressure.

Enriquez also had an unpredictable and irregular work schedule that contributed to his fatigue, the NTSB report said.