The World's Worst Disasters Caused by Sleep Deprivation

The World's Worst Disasters Caused by Sleep Deprivation

We’ve all been there: putting the milk carton in a kitchen cabinet instead of the fridge, leaving our keys in the lock and leaving our home wearing two different shoes – and a nightgown. That’s what sleep deprivation does to us, but things aren’t always that innocent. Statistics tell a much more terrifying story: one in six fatal car crashes and more than 200,000 workplace accidents a year are supposed to be a result of insufficient sleep. And that’s not all, some of the most terrible disasters that happened in the 20th century have happened because of sleep deprivation.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Exxon Valdez, a huge tanker carrying more than 1,264,155 barrels of oil, ran aground in 1989 and caused the second-largest oil spill in the history of the United States. It turned out that the accident was a direct result of sleep deprivation: the Exxon Shipping Company was trying to save some money so they recently fired some of the ship’s crew, which resulted in the remaining crew members working long hours to make up for it. Since their shifts were usually somewhere between 12 to 14 hours, it’s no wonder that an exhausted third mate fell asleep at the wheel and failed to do his job.

The ship struck Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef and spilled 42,000 to 144,000 m3 of crude oil into the open ocean. This caused one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters to date. The most recent research shows that some of the oil still remains on beaches in Prince William Sound and up to 725 km away, and that many animal species affected in the spill still haven’t recovered.

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster happened in 1986, killing all 7 crew members that were on board of the Challenger. The space shuttle broke apart just 73 seconds into its flight, which could probably have been prevented had the managers of the launch team gotten enough sleep on the night before. A long investigation that followed the accident uncovered that some of them got as little as two hours of sleep before coming to work that day, which clearly had a substantial effect on their performance.  

The crash was witnessed live by about 17% of Americans, who watched the launch from all across the country. Because of the extensive media coverage of the accident, bad news travelled fast: about 85% of Americans had heard about the accident within one hour.

Canadian National Train Wreck

The collision of Canadian National/Illinois Central Railway (CN/IC) southbound train 533 and northbound train 243 happened near Clarkston, Michigan on November 15, 2001. Both crewmembers on the train 243 were killed, while two crewmembers on the train 533 sustained serious injuries. About 3,000 gallons of diesel were spilled as a result of the collision and the total cost of the accident was approximately $1.4 million.

The reason for the accident was, once again, sleep deprivation – but this time, on two ends. It turned out that two crewmen on one of the trains suffered from sleep apnoea, which was the reason behind their chronic sleeplessness. Perhaps the most tragic part of the story is the fact that both of them had been repeatedly warned about their obstructive sleep apnoea and its influence on their ability to drive – but both chose to ignore the warnings.

Air France Flight 447

Air France Flight 447 was scheduled to fly passenger from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris, France – but never got to its destination. It crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on 1 June 2009, killing all 228 passengers, aircrew and cabin crew on the plane. To this date, Air France Flight 447 remains one of the deadliest plane crashes – but it turns out it probably could have been prevented.

According to the official report, the pilot Marc Dubois only managed to catch one hour of sleep the night before the flight, so he was taking a nap when the plane collided with a tropical storm. Adverse weather conditions combined with human error were enough to send the plane crashing into the ocean.