Lack of Sleep Can Be Truly Disastrous

Rebecca Shrum

By Rebecca Shrum

The everyday drain of getting poor sleep or not enough sleep at night can make us feel tired and unproductive the next day. Even worse, over the long term, ongoing sleep deprivation can have lifelong health consequences.

But for those who work in jobs on cargo ships, passenger jets and trains, as well as in nuclear power plants and oil refineries, poor or inadequate sleep can literally have disastrous consequences in the blink of an eye. Some of the most catastrophic events in recent history have been partially or totally attributed to errors caused by fatigued operators and managers.

Chances are you remember the horrific pictures showing lost lives and impact on communities as a result of these five disasters. The investigations into various high-profile disasters have revealed contributing factors that include sleep deprivation and sleep disorders among operators and managers.

1. The Challenger Explosion

When the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart due to a structural failure at launch on Jan. 28th, 1986 in Cape Canaveral, Fla., all seven crew members were killed. The disaster also caused $3.2 billion in property loss/damage.

How Sleep Was Involved: The official report on the Challenger accident by the Presidential Commission revealed that, because of the launch scrub on January 27th, certain key personnel obtained only minimal sleep the night before the teleconference. Others had gotten up early in the morning, so they were awake and on duty for extended periods. The early morning shift work, time pressures, and sleep loss faced by engineers and managers directly contributed to poor judgment.

2. Exxon Valdez Spill

Along its route to Long Beach, Calif. on March 24th, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck Bligh Reef, releasing 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska. 1,300 miles of coastline were polluted, with $2 billion spent on clean up.

How Sleep Was Involved: Within the prior 16 hours, the tanker’s crew had worked round-the-clock with very little sleep. In fact, given their sleep deprivation, none of the crew could take a bridge watch legally when the accident occurred. The Third Mate, who was manning the tanker’s controls at the time of the accident, had only been able to take a catnap for a couple of hours

3. American Airlines Flight 1420 Crash

While landing at the Little Rock National Airport in Arkansas on June 1, 1999 during inclement weather, AA Flight 1420 overran the end of the runway and crashed into airport and civilian infrastructure. The captain and 10 passengers were killed, and more than 100 others were injured. Aircraft valued at $10.7 million were destroyed.

How Sleep Was Involved: Along with inclement weather, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) official report cited “impaired performance resulting from fatigue” as a contributing factor to the crash. Both the captain and first officer were deemed more error-prone at the time of the accident. They had been awake and working for more than 16 hours.

4. Metro-North Train Crash

While heading southbound at 7 a.m. December 1, 2013 on the Metro-North Hudson Line near Bronx, N.Y, bound for Grand Central Station, passenger train 8808 derailed while rounding a curve at 82 mph. Four people died and 61 were injured, creating $9 million in property damage.

How Sleep Was Involved: The investigation determined that the train conductor failed to stop the train due to fatigue from undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The NTSB official report mentioned the conductor having multiple OSA “risk factors, including obesity, male gender, snoring, complaints of fatigue, and excessive daytime sleepiness.” Also, the conductor had recently switched from working nights to early morning shifts, which can disrupt your circadian rhythm and cause drowsiness.

5. Hoboken Train Crash

On September 29, 2016 as it approached the Hoboken Terminal at 8:38 in the morning, NJ Transit train 1614 failed to stop. It collided with a terminal wall at 21 mph. One person died, 114 were injured, and property damage was estimated at 6 million.

How Sleep Was Involved: The NTSB official report cites the probable cause of the accident as the conductor’s failure to apply the brakes due to fatigue from undiagnosed OSA. Preventative measures have been improved since, and the conductor even returned to his job in September 2019 under conditions that he maintains OSA treatment.
Chris O’Neil / National Transportation Safety Board

Research on the psychophysiology, neurophysiology, endocrinology, and behavioral aspects of disturbed and inappropriately timed sleep have led to a better understanding of the consequences of sleep disorders, improper sleep schedules, shiftwork, and daytime sleepiness. Going forward, sleep disorder screenings and monitoring can be important for optimal individual performance and helping people avoid health problems related to shift work.

Even if the lives and physical well-being of hundreds of people don’t depend on your wide-awake performance, never forget that “Sleep Is Your Superpower” in all kinds of ways.

How Sleep Helps You Triumph Over Achy, Shaky, Sneezy Season

Rebecca Shrum

By Rebecca Shrum

As you probably already know, I’m a super sleep supporter. Even more so when cold and flu season rolls around. This time of year, we all need help boosting our immune system so we can feel great and work at our best. One of the optimum ways to supercharge our individual immunity is to get enough sleep.

Lack of Sleep Makes You Vulnerable

The importance of sleep is well documented.  People who report they get less than seven hours of sleep a night are almost three times more likely to become infected by the rhinovirus or common cold.  Women who say they sleep five hours or less a night are almost 70 percent more likely to develop pneumonia. There’s also evidence that getting less than six or seven hours of sleep a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer.

Sleep Helps You Get Well

Your own body confirms the sleep/immunity connection. Think about it. When you feel under the weather, what do you want to do? Curl up under a blanket and sleep, right? You naturally want to crash because your body knows that sleep, especially sleep at night, including deep non-REM sleep, stimulates the production of all kinds of immunity boosters — even making you more sensitive to their positive effects. You actually wake up the next day as a more robust immune individual. 

Sleep Even Impacts Immunizations

Your doctor probably tells you to get a flu shot during the fall. But did you know sleep can make your shot more protective? In a notable study, one group of people were only allowed to sleep four hours a night for six nights. The other group got a full night of sleep each night. During the study period, all participants got a flu shot. When the responses to that flu shot were measured, the people who slept just four hours a night went on to produce less than 50 percent of the normal antibody response. That result indicates that not getting sufficient sleep in the week or the days before you get your flu shot, may make it far less effective.

As I’ve said before, and undoubtedly will again, sleep is your superpower. Make sleep a priority during the achy, shaky season so you can finish the year strong and be ready to celebrate the dawn of 2023!

Wake Up Call: Put down your phone and try reading a book!

Wake Up Call: Do you really need that afternoon cup of coffee?

Watch Matt Walker's TED Talk: 6 tips for Better Sleep

Want to not only fall asleep quickly but also stay asleep longer? Sleep scientist Matt Walker explains how your room temperature, lighting and other easy-to-fix factors can set the stage for a better night's rest.

12 Tips for Healthy Sleep

    1. Stick to a sleep schedule.
    2. Exercise is great, but not too late in the day.
    3. Avoid caffeine and nicotine.
    4. Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed.
    5. Avoid large meals and beverages late at night.
    6. If possible, avoid medications that delay or disrupt your sleep.
    7. Don’t take naps after 3 p.m.
    8. Relax before bed.
    9. Take a hot bath before bed.
    10. Dark bedroom, cool bedroom, gadget-free bedroom.
    11. Have the right sunlight exposure.
    12. Don’t lie in bed awake.
Scroll to Top