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How fatigue played a role in some of the world’s biggest disasters

Thursday, October 20, 2016 by James Gorry

Do you try to undermine the importance of sleep?

An hour here, 30 minutes there: a few nights of poor sleep isn’t such a big deal, right?

Sleep is perhaps more important, and more vital to your reaction time, concentration, and ability to make timely, good decisions, than you give it credit for. It is the cause of accidents across the globe every day.

In fact, three of the most devastating disasters in recent history, have a direct link to drowsiness, fatigue, and sleep deprivation.

Researching these disasters was quite confronting. As you read, you’ll learn that sleep deprivation or poor quality sleep didn’t leave operators feeling simply sluggish, but resulted in catastrophic tragedies, environmental destruction, and most significantly, loss of life.

How fatigue contributed to these disasters

Nuclear: the Chernobyl disaster

Where and when?

  • 26th April, 1986, 1:23am local time
  • Chernobyl, Russia (present-day Ukraine)

  • What happened?

    Possibly the most well-known disaster in history, repercussions from the Chernobyl power plant explosion are still felt today, 30 years later. Reactor Four experienced a power increase resulting in a radioactive explosion that killed two workers that night, and directly killed 28 people in the four months after the accident (due to severe radiation poisoning).

    The disaster occurred in a small Ukrainian town located along the Pripyat River, just 16km from the Belarus border.

    Radiation was sent all across Eastern Europe and the USSR; it still lingers across Ukraine today. A 2600km exclusion zone is still enforced, three decades later.

    Due to the delayed effects of radiation ingestion, it’s hard to put a definite number on the deaths caused by this disaster. However the World Health Organisation predicts 4000 deaths will, over time, be linked to the effects of Chernobyl.

    They also reported thyroid cancer dramatically increased in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, immediately after the disaster.

    Somewhat surprisingly, people still live in the radiation-affected region. Having survived the wrath of Stalin and the Second World War, Ukrainian babushkas did not want to leave their town based on “invisible threats in the air, soil, and water”.

    Those who remain life there in “relative normalcy”, and see the danger as just a way of life.

    The role of fatigue:

    Long hours, tight deadlines, and working at night: this hardly sounds out of character for almost any occupation. It’s safe to assume that we all, at one point, have put in a few extra hours at work to meet a project deadline.

    Investigators concluded that fatigue – due to 13-hour shifts – was a leading contributor to the human error that led to the explosion. (A flawed reactor design was also to blame.)

    Ignoring the signs of fatigue can not only affect you heath, but your cognitive actions, reactions, and decision-making, and when combined with the risk of a nuclear explosion, proved disastrous.

    And in an ironic twist of fate, following the disaster, locals had to give up their jobs as drivers as the effects of radiation poisoning meant they were frequently falling asleep at the wheel.


    Oil and gas: the Exxon Valdez oil spill

    Where and when?

  • 24th March, 1989, 12:04am local time
  • Alaska, USA

  • What happened?

    The massive oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, east of Anchorage, on Good Friday in 1989.

    It’s alleged the vessel moved out of its designated lane in order to avoid ice, and then failed to return to their lane, resulting in impact with the reef.

    The Exxon Valdez disaster is regarded as one of the most environmentally-devastating oil spills of all time:

  • An estimated $2 billion was spent on the clean up
  • 10.8 million gallons of oil were released into Prince William Sound
  • Almost 2100km of shoreline was oiled
  • Damage to the vessel was estimated at $25 million
  • The role of fatigue:

    The wheelhouse contained a Pilot, Captain, Helsman and Third Mate, all of whom played their specific role in manoeuvring the vessel through the Valdez Narrows (see a map here) and around icebergs.

    Fatigue is speculated to be a contributing cause to the Third Mate inability to return the vessel back to its correct lane before it struck the reef. It’s alleged the Third Mate had inadequate sleep, in fact, supposedly only one “cat nap” (that may not have lasted more than two hours) in the 16 hours leading up to the disaster.

    A disturbing statement came from the Third Mate’s boss, who said that fatigue is simply part of the job: “This is just normal to me … this is how you will work … this is what is expected of you.

    What kind of disaster has to happen before high-risk industries take the dangers and outcomes of fatigue seriously?


    Space: the Challenger explosion

    Where and when?

  • 28th January, 1986, 11:39am local time
  • Florida, USA

    • What happened?

      Nasa’s space shuttle, Challenger, broke apart in a horrifying explosion just 73 seconds after launching from the Kennedy Space Centre on Florida’s east coast, about 80km from Orlando.

      All seven crew members were killed. Their exact moment of death is debated, with some saying they survived the explosion and were alive (although possibly unconscious) when they fell for about two-and-a-half minutes to the ocean.

      No matter the exact moment of death, there’s no denying the horror of this disaster.

      The role of fatigue:

      It’s been widely reported that sacrificed rest, due to long hours of preparation leading up to the mission, was a leading catalyst in the human error that caused the accident.

      The mission was speculated to have been plagued by faults throughout much of the planning and the problems forced managers and staff to overwork in order to stick to the scheduled launch. As a result, it’s reported they had little sleep the night before the scheduled take-off.

      This manuscript some managers had only two hours’ sleep the night before and had been on duty since 1am on the day of the launch (Challenger launched more than 10 hours later, at 11:38am).

      Poor judgement and human error were reported as causes of the disaster, and these actions were brought upon by severe sleep deprivation.


      Don’t underestimate the power of sleep

      Navy Capt. Nick Davenport, who specialises in aviation mishaps, sums it up perfectly: “Fatigue is under-recognised as a mishap causal factor.”

      Sleep debt

      Sleep debt is the cumulative effect of reduced sleep, and can build up quicker than you might expect. The only way to repay sleep debt is with good-quality sleep.

      Long-term sleep debt can turn into acute sleep deprivation, adversely affecting your health, immune system, ability to concentrate, and, as demonstrated in the above disasters, ability to make good decisions.

      The above accidents are no doubt devastating. Victims, their families, the company, and the general public are all affected by the dangers of drowsiness and fatigue. And when you’re working in a high-risk industry, you can’t afford to skirt around the dangers of drowsiness.

      Sleep, as Capt. Davenport says, “is not optional”. If you work in a high-risk, 24/7 operation, your employees need Optalert’s technology. 

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