When Sleep Can Save the World: 7 Historic Disasters Due to Sleep Deprivation

Challenger Explosion via Wikimedia Commons

The New York Times article titled “Sleep is the New Status Symbol” couldn’t get any straightforward. While that sounds quite un-alarming, how about NPR Shot’s “Short on Sleep? You Could Be a Disaster Waiting to Happen”? I believe had everyone had enough sleep every day, this world would’ve been spared of the countless accidents attributed to sleep deprivation, and perhaps many of the world’s most tragic disasters in history.

The Internet was abuzz earlier this year when U.S. President Donald Trump “bragged” about not getting enough sleep. Trump told the Chicago Tribune that he’s “not a big sleeper,” getting only around three to four hours of sleep. We understand that he’s an extremely busy person but if he’s having some troubles, the internet can definitely help him. This habit of his is particularly conspicuous on Twitter, as pointed out by Arianna Huffington in her CNBC interview, calling him “the poster child of sleep deprivation.” Many are quick to express their distress, fearing that this could lead to a potential nuclear disaster, thanks to his current problem with North Korea.

Sleep Deprivation in Numbers

The body heavily relies on the cognitive. Being the central control area of the body, getting enough sleep is crucial for its restoration and regeneration. Many studies have shown the negative impacts of chronic and acute sleep deprivation, and among them are decreased creative and innovative mental processing, decision-making and planning, reaction time, memory, visuomotor skills and reasoning skills. To make It more personal, the immune system, sex drive and overall health are all at risk of complications.

Sleeplessness clouds our thinking and causes us to make more errors, react slower and use poorer judgment (gasp!), according to the National Sleep Foundation. 35% of people don’t feel they get enough sleep, says the World Sleep Day. 46% of individuals with frequent sleep disturbances report missing work or events or making errors at work. In the same report, 71,000 people suffer injuries every year due to sleep-related accidents and 1,550 people die because of it. People with insomnia are seven times more likely to become involved in an accident, causing death or serious injury.

If these statistics aren’t blood-curling enough, maybe these historic events will shake you to the core. It’s been said that history repeats itself, but let’s just hope that if we get the much-needed quality sleep, we can prevent these disasters from happening again.

1. The Challenger Disintegration

31 years ago, NASA’s American Challenger exploded in mid-air with millions of people present and on television witnessing the tragic event. It was all due to the O-rings in the rocket boosters which failed to function due to the unusually cold temperature on January 28, 1986. The engineers were said to have warned their superiors of the possible problems if they push through with the launching. It was said that the superiors only had a few hours of sleep, which perhaps lead them to make such a disastrous decision.

If the people involved had enough sleep, I guess they would’ve been able to find a way to ready the O-rings despite the weather. Alternatively, a better decision was made and that was to postpone the launch, saving the lives of the crew in the process. People grieved for the crew, especially the teacher-on-board Sharon Christa McAuliffe. The disaster also brought forth a 32-month hiatus on NASA’s shuttle missions.

2. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

On March 24, 1989, this massive oil spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska caused extensive damages to and deaths of nearby natural resources and the thriving wildlife in the area. The coil spread over 700 miles from the tanker to the coastline. The 10-year period clean-up was estimated to have cost around $1 billion.

The captain of Valdez, Joseph Hazelwood, was found out to be intoxicated and asked an officer to navigate the vessel. Moreover, the National Transportation Safety Board claimed that the mate was “severely sleep deprived,” causing the oil tanker to run aground the reef. Up to this day, the island waters are still polluted.

We can only imagine what happened to the mate behind the controls. But since he’s severely sleep deprived, we can only imagine him either dozing off, misinterpreted the signals or miscalculated the distance of the ship from the shore. Worse, it must’ve been a series of bad decisions that lead to the demise of many animals and the long-term harm on natural resources.

3. Three Mile Island Meltdown

Another unforgettable disaster in the 20th century is the Three Mile Island meltdown. According to the records in History.com, a complicated combination of stuck valves, misread gauges and poor decisions lead to a partial meltdown of the reactor core and a release of significant amounts of radioactive gases.

The overheating initially took place early in the morning, but the reported sleep-deprived engineers failed to notice the impending disaster. Fortunately, there was no casualty and minimal environmental effects were only felt. The clean-up took 12 years to finish but no health issues were reported since the incident.

4. Chernobyl Nuclear Plant Explosion – slow reflexes

Chernobyl is the worst nuclear accident in the world. Thousands of people died and the place is declared unlivable for 150 years or more. People living within the 18-mile radius around the plant had to be permanently relocated due to the radioactive gases released by the reactors. What makes this incident even more controversial is the Soviet Union’s attempt to cover it up.

Insufficient sleep was again attributed to the tragedy, as engineers were reportedly working 13-hours straight, leading to poor decisions, instructions and coordination. The poor design of the reactors may have been the main culprit, but it can’t be denied how lack of sleep contributes to the worsening of human errors.

Mechanical errors are greatly to be blamed, sure, but pair put human error in the picture then you’ll definitely be spiraling down to destruction. The mentioned incidents were measured according to the magnitude of the effects on people and the environment. Hence, they always appear at the top. However, there are also other sleep-related tragedies that are worth mentioning.

5. American Airlines Flight 1420 Crash

In June 1999, American Airlines Flight 1420 crashed at the Little Rock Airport, killing the captain and 10 passengers. The captain was said to be severely deprived of sleep and was fatigued. There was an ongoing thunderstorm around midnight and reports said that the captain and first officer had been awake for 16 hours and been working for 13 hours.

6. Great Heck High-Speed Train Crash

Also known as the Selby rail crash, the high-speed train accident took place in Selby North Yorkshire on February 28, 2001. The Land Rover driver, Gary Hart, who caused the three-way collision, killing 10 people was accused of falling asleep while behind the wheels.

7. 2013 Metro-North Train Crash

December 1, 2013 saw the fatal train accident in Bronx, New York City, leaving four people dead and 63 injured. The train engineer was believed to have either dozed off or was in a daze while passing through the curve north of Spuyten Duyvil station.
I remember my mom called me at school, screaming that I left the flat iron on. Another instance after an all-nighter was having an awful score in my Spanish exam. They may not be like that of Chernobyl or the Three Mile Island Breakdown, but those were several errors committed after being sleep deprived. Surely yours would’ve been something like sending your girlfriend a stupid message by accident, putting something completely incompatible with your cereal, or simply locking your keys inside your car. Whatever they may be, they’re sure felt like a disaster.

The Value of Sleep

Studies about having shorter sleep shortens life can get really literal. When you doze off, you’ll never know what would happen next. The internet has a lot of tips – natural and interventional – to get a good night’s rest. The connection between sleep and energy is undeniable. Like a gadget that needs a fully-charged battery to function optimally, our body needs just as much. Nobody wants a day turned bad just because we’re or someone else is all groggy and cranky. Rest isn’t a chore but a need for a longer and better life.

As many experts would call it: one of the pillars of good health. In life, we’re always faced with many decisions and indecisions, but as long as you have a choice, choose a much-needed and well-deserved sleep.

 

About the author Abigail Sabijon

Abigail Sabijon is a blogger and managing editor of Scoopfed.comScoopfed.com. Before she pursued her passion for writing, she was a university instructor and an international academy teacher. On her spare time, she writes for Dr. Eric Berg.