Confined Space

  Liberty Mutual to Close its Famed Research Institute

The country is about to lose a major player in safety and health research, and it couldn’t come at a worse time.

We have heard from multiple sources that Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, the premier private sector researcher establishment in occupational safety and health, will abruptly close its doors within the next few weeks.

Reading this newsletter or the major media can sometimes make you think that workplace safety and health is all about politics. But it’s actually about people, and the science of keeping working people alive and healthy. And good scientific findings — along with the benefits that come from science — are dependent on research.

“It’s shocking and a sad day for safety and health,” said Steve Newell, a partner at ORCHSE Strategies, LLC, a consulting firm that provides workplace safety and health information and forums for industry health and safety leaders.  Owned and operated by Liberty Mutual Insurance, the Institute has done significant and important work in the prevention component of workers’ compensation since it was founded over 60 years ago. Institute researchers have performed numerous pathbreaking studies on prevention, disability management and a range of other topics important to workplace injury and illness prevention.

Newell explains that “We face major technical challenges in safety and health. It’s a technical profession, sometimes based on belief —  because we often don’t have enough science when we’re dealing with complicated topics such as risk and infrequent catastrophic events. This is a significant loss.”

“This is an unfortunate sign of the growing distance between the workers’ compensation industry and injury prevention” — Dr. David Michaels

Founded in 1954, the Institute is probably best known to the public for its estimates of the costs of injury and illness in the workplace. Using the most recent data, the 2017 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index estimated that workplace injuries and accidents that cause employees to miss six or more days of work cost U.S. employers $59.9 billion in 2014. The Institute also breaks the data down. For example, they estimate that

The top five injury causes (led by overexertion, same-level falls and falls to a lower level) accounted for 64.8 percent of the total cost burden, and the remaining five of the top 10 injury causes accounted for 17.7 percent of the total direct cost of disabling injuries.

The 10 leading causes of the most disabling work-related injuries account for $49.9 billion, or 83.4 percent of the total cost of $59.9 billion.  The top three causes – which collectively represent almost half of the cost of the leading accidents – are overexertion ($13.8 billion, 23 percent), falls on same level ($10.6 billion, 17.7 percent) and falls to lower level ($5.5 billion, 9.2 percent).

Anyone reading the Confined Space Weekly Toll, or looking at BLS fatality numbers may note the high number of traffic-related fatalities that kill workers. Some may throw up there hands and figure there’s nothing to be done. But that would be wrong. The Institute has conducted extensive research on why vehicle crashes occur and how to prevent them.

One study, for example, examined how a driver’s level of interest in non-driving-related information — such as  radio news items — impacted their performance, as well as dangers associated with driving while fatigued. The result of this research may lead to the development of “drowsy-driving countermeasures, such as in-vehicle systems that monitor the driver’s condition and warn of potentially dangerous fatigue levels,”  leading causes of serious nonfatal workplace injuries and trends over time. The Institute also has centers for epidemiology, ergonomics, behavioral sciences and disability research and has research and recommendations on preventing falls, “among the top 10 causes of the most serious and costly nonfatal US work injuries.”

Opioid abuse is high in the headlines these days, and there is considerable evidence that much of that abuse may be related to treatment for work-related injuries.  The Institute has been all over that issue: “Our prior research identified early opioid prescriptions as a significant risk factor for prolonged disability, extended medical care and prolonged opioid use among workers with occupational low back pain. These studies led to new treatment guidelines that strongly discourage early use of opioids for non-traumatic occupational musculoskeletal injuries.”

“The abrupt end of this program will do incalculable damage to workplace safety and health in this country.” — Dr. Jack Dennerlein

“There’s nothing quite like it in terms of a private insurance company providing support,” according to Dr. Jack Dennerlein, an Adjunct Professor of Ergonomics and Safety at Harvard University and one of the country’s leading experts on ergonomics.

Dennerlein notes that the Institute has developed strong relationships with a number of leading universities over many decades, including Harvard, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and Amherst, as well as MIT, and they’ve sponsored numerous post-doctoral fellowships — all of which will now come to an abrupt halt when the Institute’s funding is pulled. Dennerlein credits the Institute for supporting him at the beginning of his career.

He worries that with budget cuts in government agencies like NIOSH, it will be hard to find that kind of support for future health and safety researchers. “The contribution that the Institute has made over the years has been incredible,” Dennerlein said. “From determining weight limits for airplane baggage to developing training for managers to keep people with injuries at work productive. The abrupt end of this program will do incalculable damage to workplace safety and health in this country.”

There have been hints for a while that Liberty’s priorities were changing. In 2015, Liberty announced that it was “pulling back” from the Workers Compensation market “as its profits get squeezed by increasing medical costs and changing state regulations.” Industry experts think that would be bad for workers, causing employers to cut back on injury benefits or challenge claims submitted by workers.

Liberty’s falling interest in workers’ comp has been blamed on rising medical costs and “shifting regulatory environments” as employers and trade associations lobby to reduce premiums and some states drop requirements that companies carry traditional workers’ comp insurance, following the examples of Texas and Oklahoma.

At that time, Liberty spokespersons said that they would focus on “more profitable” parts of the business like safety consulting and the firm “remains committed to the workplace safety studies it conducts at the company’s research institute for safety.”

But at its 60th anniversary in 2014, the Institute’s Director, Y. Ian Noy, noting some organizational changes, nevertheless stressed that “What will not change is the mandate to generate scientific knowledge to help reduce injuries and disability. That noble goal, which aligns with Liberty Mutual’s stated endeavor to help people live safer, more secure lives, will continue to serve as our strategic compass.”

Three years later, that is clearly not the case.

“This is an unfortunate sign of the growing distance between the workers’ compensation industry and injury prevention,” said Dr. David Michaels, former Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA and now professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health. “As workers’ compensation carriers abandon any remaining commitment to injury prevention, there is one less reason to have a separate workers’ compensation insurance system.  Through their short-sightedness, the carriers are helping make themselves irrelevant and building the case for their own demise.”

9 Comments

  1. This is a loss. I’ve used info from Liberty Mutual to better reach management. If thete is no research there is no data-and without data safety improvements are easily dismissed as unnecessary.

  2. The demise of the Liberty Mutual Research Institute is a real loss, especially at a time when protections of worker health and safety are under fire nationally. David Kotelchuck

  3. I cannot believe that the Institute management couldn’t figure out how to keep the Institute relevant to the business changes. As Ted Kelly said in 2014, speaking as the Chairman, President and CEO of Liberty:
    As we cut this ribbon today, we recognize our contributions and renew our commitment to all that this building embodies. We also celebrate the expansion of this facility from a 1000squarefot building 50 years ago to a 93,000 square foot facility with 11 laboratories today. And yet, the progress we have made to this building pales relative to the progress we made from within it. In short within these walls, we changed lives. We kept our promise and we honored our pledge to help lead safe more secure lives”

    1. Tom, I can’t agree with you more. Much good work came out of the facility and thank you for the contributions you made.
      Sincerely,
      Guy Fragala

  4. This is lamentable and very distressing, but not unexpected. It is a sad day in a sad trend.

    The institute was one of the few organizations that triangulated among ergonomics, epidemiologically-oriented injury prevention, and safety, and they did it within the context of workers’ compensation. That is such an unusual structure.

    We proposed doing exactly that about in a proposal about 18 years ago and it was very revealing. Not just because the proposal was not funded but because it revealed a huge gap among the three “tribes” (above) which have vastly different cultures, assumptions, and approaches to a common problem. I would argue that the division has always been unfathomably deep for no good reason and what we have lost is one of the very few institutions bridging the gaps.

  5. I was honored to work at the Institute for 28 years, first under the mentorship of Dr. Stover Snook as part of the old “Ergonomics group” and then focusing my research mainly on the clinical management of work-related low back pain (including leading the opioid research mentioned in this piece). I was so sad to learn about the company’s decision to close such an important research program.

    There was no other research group like it that was funded by the insurance industry to do peer reviewed research. While a Liberty spokesman noted in a Boston Globe article (www.bostonglobe.com/business/2017/05/11/liberty-mutual-closing-its-research-unit/0ZqZW2rpDqy91P7vXmQV1N/story.html) “We will use funds to continue and create partnerships with organizations and specialists that give us the flexibility to tap into research studying the evolving ways that people are living and working,” the results and impact will likely fail to “help people live safer and more secure lives.”

    As another colleague has said, it feels like Liberty has lost its soul.