Human Error: 8 Eye-Popping Sets of Stats and Examples

On September 23, 1999, one of the greatest human errors in modern history made headlines across the world.


The Mars Climate Orbiter was spinning in orbit around the red planet, beginning its mission to collect data on Earth’s closest neighbor. But the Climate Orbiter went radio silent just as it was starting to orbit Mars.


As minutes of silence bled into hours, NASA technicians realized that their worst fears had come true. The Mars Climate Orbiter, all $125 million of it, was gone, likely destroyed in the punishing atmosphere of Mars.


After a comprehensive investigation, NASA found the probe failed because some of its software used United States customary units instead of the metric system.


This crucial error was somehow missed by hundreds of NASA experts, even though your average high school physics student could have diagnosed the problem.


This is just one example of human error at play. But every process that involves humans is inherently vulnerable to error.


Here are eight sets of stats and examples about human error that will make your eyes pop.


8 Unbelievable Sets of Stats and Examples About Human Error


  • Data entry, with no verification layer steps, has an error rate as high as 4%. That means the error rate for data entered once, without any further verification, is 400 per 10,000 entries – a significant number that affects even small datasets.


  • The Three Mile Island Incident, the most significant accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history, was caused by an erroneous human response to the partial meltdown of one of the plant’s nuclear reactors. The accident caused $2.4 billion in property damage.



  • At the 89th Academy Awards, a PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant broke protocol and gave out the wrong awards slip for Best Picture. The cast of La La Land was hurriedly rushed off the stage mid-awards speech, in a chaotic scene that was watched by millions across the world.


  • 90% of all cyber attacks are caused by human initiated error. 52% of all data breaches stem from human error, rather than by technical vulnerabilities. Half of these breaches were attributed to the “end user [failing] to follow policies and procedures,” while the other half were caused by “general carelessness.”


  • Boeing says that 80% of all airplane accidents are the result of human error. Aviation Safety magazine reports an even higher figure, estimating that close to 90% of crashes happen because of pilot error.



  • On April 15th, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean after Captain Edward Smith misjudged the distance between an iceberg and the ship’s hull. Once deemed “unsinkable,” the ship crashed to the shock of the world, causing 1,517 deaths.


The Path Forward: Limiting Human Error


Stats and examples about human error are often mind boggling. So what can be done to mitigate costly human mistakes?


Verification steps, automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are fundamentally improving the accuracy of work products and processes across many sectors.


In some cases, these technologies and methods are being used in tandem with human labor to minimize error rates. A study by UNLV found that humans empowered by automation technology are over twenty times more accurate at data verification than humans alone.


Human error isn’t going anywhere. But with technological innovation, employees, companies, and organizations are learning how to minimize its impact. And maybe that’s how organizations will avoid the next $125 million dollar mistake.

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