10 Real-World Examples of Human Error

Human error has led to some of the biggest disasters in human history. Here’s a look at ten major examples of human error.

1. Equifax Data Breach

The Equifax data breach on March 10, 2017, was one of the most significant cybersecurity incidents in history, exposing sensitive data on over 140 million Americans. During a Congressional hearing on the matter, former Equifax CEO Richard F. Smith testified that one mistake by a single employee caused the technology department to ignore security warnings. Additionally, software fixes could have addressed specific vulnerabilities and prevented the attack from occuring.

2. The Sinking of the Titanic

On April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank during its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. The incident occurred due to human error on the part of Captain Edward Smith, who altered the ship’s course to head south in an attempt to avoid an area with icebergs. However, he didn’t reduce the ship’s speed, ignored a subsequent warning from a nearby ship, and ultimately wasn’t able to steer away from an iceberg quickly enough to avoid a collision. The sinking of the RMS Titanic resulted in over 1,500 deaths.

3. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Partial Meltdown

Broadly considered the worst nuclear power plant incident in history, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant partial meltdown occurred between April 25 and 26, 1986. The accident happened after technicians attempted an experiment in which the plant’s power-regulating system and emergency safety systems were shut down. Additionally, the majority of the control rods were removed.

Subsequent mistakes caused a chain reaction, leading to an out-of-control core, a series of explosions, the release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere, and a partial meltdown. 31 people died during the active part of the incidents, and estimates suggest that up to 4,000 deaths may ultimately be attributed to the resulting radiation exposure.

4. 89th Academy Awards Best Picture Gaffe

During the 89th Academy Awards on February 26, 2017, Warren Beaty and Faye Dunaway presented the award for Best Picture. They confidentially declared La La Land the winner, when the actual winner was Moonlight. The public gaffe resulted from accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) accidentally giving the presenters the wrong envelope. In the subsequent scrabble, the mistake was announced live on air, and Moonlight got its rightful moment in the spotlight.

5. Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill began on April 20, 2010, after an explosion occurred on the rig, and it pumped oil and natural gas into the Gulf of Mexico for a total of 87 days. Both human and mechanical errors were blamed for the incident, with subpar maintenance, a “bad cement job” and a failure to follow safety protocols cited as mistakes. The explosion killed 11 people, and an estimated 134 million gallons of oil spilled into the gulf.

6. Bhopal Gas Tragedy

On December 3, 1984, an estimated 45 tons of methyl isocyanate – a toxic gas – escaped an insecticide plant in Bhopal, India. Operating errors, training deficiencies, and a failure to follow safety protocols were among issues blamed for the incident. The final death toll is believed to be between 15,000 and 20,000, with an estimated half million more suffering from blindness, respiratory issues, and other health conditions due to exposure.

7. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground, resulting in an 11 million-gallon oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The oil killed a substantial number of fish and wildlife, including an estimated 250,000 seabirds.

Much of the blame for the incident was placed on captain Joseph Hazelwood, who at the time of the incident was drinking on the job, and had an unlicensed third mate steering the oil tanker. Investigators also cited “excessive work hours” and sleep deprivation as reasons the oil spill was an “accident waiting to happen.” Exxon itself was blamed for manipulating records so that they could run undermanned vessels, such as the Exxon Valdez oil tanker.

8. Tenerife Airport Aircraft Collision

On March 27, 1977, two Boeing 747 passenger aircraft collided on a runway in the Canary Islands. The aircraft had been diverted to Los Rodeos Airport after a terrorist bombing made their original landing area at the Gran Canaria Airport unsafe.

During the takeoffs of KLM flight 4805 and Pan AM flight 1736, miscommunication between air traffic controllers caused both aircrafts to approach the single runway at the airport simultaneously, resulting in a collision and subsequent aircraft explosions. More than 580 people died in the incident.

9. Three Mile Island Partial Meltdown

On March 28, 1979, a chain reaction in a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island led to the most significant nuclear incident in US history. Mechanical malfunctions and human errors prevented the automatic cooling system from working as expected. Workers were ill-equipped to deal with a potentially catastrophic event, and a control panel flaw left them uninformed of an open valve, resulting in the reactor temperature rising. It was hours before they discovered the open valve and though it was subsequently closed, cooling failures resulted in a partial meltdown.

10. Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

On February 1, 2023, the Space Shuttle Columbia began losing insulation, ultimately disintegrating during re-entry and killing all seven crew members. During subsequent investigations, it was determined that NASA was aware of issues with the thermal insulation, but ground control decided not to notify the crew or attempt any repairs while in space. Investigations later determined that taking such actions could have saved the crewmembers.


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Catherine Reed

Catherine Reed is a writer and researcher with experience writing about a wide variety of topics including personal finance, technology, and staffing.