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For a college student, going through a day without enough sleep is pretty commonplace. After all, the worst thing that can happen to a tired student is that he annoys a professor by falling asleep in class. But in the real world, fatigue is a serious, and often dangerous, problem, according to Associate Psychology Professor David Dinges, the co-director of the University's Unit for Experimental Psychiatry. Dinges has done research showing that an inadequate amount of sleep is a major cause of industrial accidents. Dinges told a U.S. Senate subcommittee last week it has become even more important a factor than alcohol or drug use, in certain cases. Human error accounts for 65 percent to 90 percent of industrial accidents and the majority of the human error results from fatigue, he said. He said yesterday that fatigue and lack of sleep are often overlooked by employers, who sometimes push workers too hard. Even labor unions neglect to pay enough attention to fatigue, often scheduling workers for several shifts in a row, he said. The professor said this problem can sometimes be deadly. He said the National Transportation Board on Safety has found that the number one cause of death in truck driving and train accidents is fatigue. He said the trucking industry is so competetive that drivers often use drugs to stay awake so that they can finish their routes. With little legislation restricting the number of hours drivers spend on the road, they and their supervisors are on their own. Dinges said even though companies have increased their use of automated systems to avoid stopping for breaks human workers require, the problem has not gone away. Automated systems, such as those used to run nuclear power plants and large oil tankers, were largely created to ease and simplify the process of running complex machinery, he said. But these systems must be supervised and the supervisors must be ready to act quickly in the event of a malfunction. Unfortunately, these workers are often required to work long hours and as a result suffer from excessive fatigue. He said lack of sleep was a factor in both the Exxon Valdez and Three Mile Island accidents. He said automated systems malfunctioned and workers failed to respond to the dilemma because they were fatigued. Dinges said the major problem with industrial accidents is the way that the majority of people view them. He said many people attribute these accidents to worker incompetence or a lack of concern on the companies' part. He said this view is not always accurate. "[The public] needs to stop treating accidents as though it were a matter of morality, motivation, or management, and start treating it as a scientific problem," Dinges said. Dinges said some government regulations would help solve the problem. He said Congress should enact laws that allow pilots to take alternate naps on flights across the Atlantic and that the number of hours that truckers can work should be regulated. But, he said, legislators should be careful to consult experts about the problem before taking action. He said the New York legislature was hasty two years ago in restricting the number of hours medical residents could work. He also said companies should invest more money in researching ways to prevent accidents. He said the Exxon Valdez oil spill cost Exxon $2.5 billion but companies spend only a marginal percentage of their revenue on researching the cause of accidents.

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