In today’s New York Times, there’s an interesting article by Matthew Wald that raises the question whether “alarm fatigue” has led to major accidents, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon incident.
According to the piece, “For No Signs of Trouble, Kill the Alarm,”:
When an oil worker told investigators on July 23 that an alarm to warn of explosive gas on the Transocean rig in the Gulf of Mexico had been intentionally disabled months before, it struck many people as reckless.
Reckless, maybe, but not unusual. On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board said that a crash last year on the Washington subway system that killed nine people had happened partly because train dispatchers had been ignoring 9,000 alarms per week. Air traffic controllers, nuclear plant operators, nurses in intensive-care units and others do the same.
Mark R. Rosekind, a psychologist who is a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the cases had something in common. “The volume of alarms desensitizes people,” he said. “They learn to ignore them.”
James P. Keller Jr., vice president of the ECRI Institute, formerly the Emergency Care Research Institute, has a name for it: “alarm fatigue.” In a recent Web seminar for health care professionals, he asked participants if their hospital colleagues had become desensitized to any important alarms in the last two years. Three-quarters said yes. “This suggests it’s a pretty pervasive problem,” he said.
The article focuses on the impact of “alarm fatigue” on industry workers. However, I think it is also relevant to how alarms, warnings and alerts are communicated to the broader public. The full piece can be found here.