The Vestibular System and Its Implication in Staying Upright

According to the National Floor Safety Institute, slip and fall injuries account for over one million emergency room visits per year and represent the primary cause of lost work days.  Staying upright is, therefore, an important part of any organization’s safety program.

Deep within the bony labyrinth of the inner ear lies the vestibular system’s semicircular canals, utricle, and saccule.  These structures are filled with fluid and hair cells which deflect with angular and linear motion, providing the main contribution to our sense of balance.  The vestibular system interconnects with the brain, the muscles that control eye movement, and proprioceptors in skeletal muscle, tendons, and joint capsules.  Together, they function to provide our sense of movement, body position, acceleration, and spatial orientation.

Along with disorders affecting the vestibular system such as vertigo and Ménière’s disease, external conditions can disrupt our balance.  From a previous blog, Peter Koch discusses four key elements for slip and fall prevention using the acronym SAFE as a reminder.  These elements are:

Surface – Within this element are the four C’s: composition, condition, changes, and contamination.  What is the surface composed of – asphalt, gravel, concrete, carpet, vinyl, hardwood?  What is the condition of the surface – smooth, irregular, loose?  Is the surface subject to change – traffic wear, cracks, raised edges?  Is contamination a concern with water, oil, debris, or fine sand?

Attention – This element addresses human factors, situational awareness, and distraction (such as walking while using a cell phone).

Footwear – What is the tread condition and composition?  Does the footwear fit properly?  Is the footwear appropriate for the task?  Is there a footwear policy in place?

Environment – This element addresses changes in weather affecting surface conditions and choice of footwear, adequate lighting for seasonal changes, daytime temperature fluctuation (melt and refreeze), and adjusting pace or stride when walking on snow and ice.

While our vestibular system is vitally important in maintaining our sense of balance, our SAFE action can assure we stay upright on two feet.

For more information on the vestibular system and its disorders check out the Vestibular Disorders Association website.  For slip, trip, and fall prevention resources, check out the MEMIC Safety Director resource library.