Admitting that the ship's captain can fall asleep at the wheel now and then may help save a lot of money in insurance claims, according to a Cambridge, Mass., company specializing in reducing fatigue and therefore human error, which is estimated to cause 80 percent of transportation accidents.

"Fatigue, or more precisely, impaired alertness, is a fundamental problem for all round-the-clock operations, particularly in the shipping industry," said William G. Sirois, vice president of Circadian Technologies Inc., at a recent seminar held by the American Steamship Owners Mutual Protection and Indemnity Association, Inc. (The American Club) in New Orleans."The reality is, we are all but a microsleep away from a major incident!" he warned.

Unlike most industrial or office occupations where attention may drift or drowsiness may cause a microsleep with very little direct consequence, such brief moments of inattention in transportation can have immediately disastrous consequences.

Ship operation is particularly vulnerable to the worst aspects of 24-hour operation, Mr. Sirois pointed out. If you wanted to pick a perfect place to fall asleep, you could do worse than the warmth of a merchant vessel's bridge at night, with its background hum of machinery and the lights turned low so that lights on the water are visible. There's not much happening, either until that microsecond of sleep, which could cause an accident.

Fatigue-related human error, inattentiveness, and failures of cognitive reasoning, cause 80 percent of transportation accidents, with resulting deaths, injuries and property damage, according to studies used by Circadian. The U.K. P&I club's comprehensive look at claims of more than $100,000 in 1993 found human error claims to be costing an estimated $1 billion a year.

"These risks no longer have to be accepted as a cost of doing business," Mr. Sirois said, but cautioned that tackling the problem was a complicated business, involving in-depth interviews with managers and engineers, union leaders and employees to identify fatigue-sensitive areas of operations.

"Because we are dealing with very sensitive subjects (including admission of practices such as nodding off on the job), it is advisable to use a third party," he said.

Practical solutions are available. Identifying sleep patterns, ensuring crew members have enough sleep at the right time; adjusting heat, light, noise can also help to keep the crew from dipping below the crucial level of alertness required for safe operation.

Circadian Technologies has historically worked with Fortune 500 manufacturing companies, but in the last couple of years has turned its attention to transport, Mr. Sirois explained in a telephone interview Tuesday. The company has now worked with Long Beach, Calif.-based shipowner, Arco Marine, and Tidewater Marine, the New Orleans-based owner of supply ships for oil rigs. Circadian even worked with Irving, Texas-based Exxon Corp.'s attorneys on the Exxon Valdez crisis, Mr. Sirois said. Major railroad companies are also on the client list.

The approach, while hands-on, has to be friendly. "In our experience, continued education and interactive work is required to effect a culture shift in which alertness is accepted as a goal, and drowsiness or nodding-off at night is not a dark secret to be hidden from the daytime management," said Mr. Sirois. The carrot, not the stick, is required, he continued.

"A realism about the problem is required and creative solutions must be derived. Above all, it needs to be recognized by management that a reliance on disciplinary actions does not prevent fatigue nor eliminate drowsiness, micro- sleeps or nodding off on the job."