Liberty Mutual Research Institute
Beginnings with Liberty
When I was hired by Liberty Mutual in 1982, I was hired as a “Loss Control Consultant” and I had no idea what that was. I was surprised an insurance company hired engineers at all, and as a newly graduated electrical engineer, I was confused at why they needed me. As the job was explained to me, I expressed to my interviewer, “the only concern I have is having to talk to people.” That gives you an idea of where I was in terms of social skills. Little did I know communication, and especially face-to-face communication was the central skill of the job!
It took me about a year of on-the-job training to feel like I had mastered my basic consulting duties. During that first year something happened that would set the direction of my career path. I met Stover Snook. Meeting Dr. Snook was a Mount Sinai experience for me. His comprehension of the broad range of ergonomics research was dizzying. Ask him a question and he’d describe multiple studies in detail. He was one of the few people I had ever met who could synthesize vast amounts of research into the salient points and communicate it clearly to any audience. He was able to filter out the low quality research and focus on the most promising aspects of high-quality research. I am still playing catch-up with understanding and applying some of the insights he communicated decades ago. But there was another characteristic about Dr. Snook that was just as inspiring. He would listen. He would listen to any differing opinion and consider it humbly. At the same time he was tenacious about good research needing to be done in a certain way and with noble purposes in mind.
He was, and still is, my superhero. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to know what he knew. I wanted to think like he thought. I wanted to make a difference in helping people live safer more secure lives the way he did.
From left to right: Barbara Webster, Stover Snook, Vince Ciriello, me (George Brogmus) at Barbara’s retirement party. April 7, 2016
Stover and I at the HFES session honoring the contributions of the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. October 12, 2017.
Beginnings with the Research Institute
I learned a lot from Dr. Snook – both directly and from his published works. But I was curious about what the academic world had to offer in the way of ergonomics content. I looked into an Ergonomics course at USC (when they had their Safety and Systems Department) and my supervisor approved funding for me to take the one class. It was a good class but not what I expected. So I learned of another class that sounded more like what I was hoping for. My supervisor approved. Unfortunately that class was also not what I expected. However, there was one more class that really looked like what I was interested in. My supervisor (wisely) said he would support me taking the class but only if I enrolled in the Master’s program there. With two classes already under my belt, I went for it and earned my Master’s degree in Human Factors with an emphasis on Human Performance and Aging.
A couple years after earning my Master’s, in 1993, Liberty Mutual’s Research Center (as it was then called) was looking for someone who could be a bridge between research and reality. I applied and interviewed with Tom Leamon. Similar to my first interview with Liberty, I confided in Dr. Leamon, “the only thing I’m concerned about is doing research.” Of course that was the main job! Dr. Leamon was kind and encouraging to me and this set the tone for the supportive environment that he created at the Institute while I was there.
To give an idea how naive I was about research, when Dr. Leamon gave me my first research assignment, I did not care if my name went on the paper. To me, at the time, I saw myself as an employee and this was the work product that belonged to my company, not me. Of course I quickly learned that authorship, and being first author in particular, is highly coveted among researchers.
One of the first people I ever met at the research institute was Barbara Webster. Barbara was then and has always been a bright light of sensibility and FUN at the research institute. Not only did she welcome me with enthusiasm, she treated me as a true peer and had insight into the personalities of the research institute personnel. Barbara provided essential support to Dr. Snook and Dr. Ciriello in their psychophysical research, but she also had high-value research she accomplished on her own. Her studies on the cost of back injuries is some of the most cited (if not the most cited) on the topic (http://journals.lww.com/spinejournal/Abstract/1994/05001/The_Cost_of_1989_Workers__Compensation_Low_Back.1.aspx). I still frequently refer to her research on physician treatment compliance with accepted guidelines (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1525-1497.2005.0230.x/full) and MRI use (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4235393/). Barbara was co-author with me (and Dr. Sorock) on my very first peer-reviewed paper.
Barbara also was at the forefront of planning special events – something that was a rich and frequent tradition during my years there. These brilliant people knew how to conduct science but they also knew how to have good wholesome fun!
I was hired by Dr. Leamon along with Ted Courtney, Gary Sorock, and Simon Hsiang – all three of which had major influences on my thinking and work and shared authorship with me on my earliest peer-reviewed published papers. Dr. Sorock taught me much about epidemiology and tutored me through my first peer-reviewed paper (http://journals.lww.com/joem/Abstract/1996/04000/Recent_Trends_in_Work_Related_Cumulative_Trauma.19.aspx). I can remember my first introduction to the peer-review process when Ted Courtney first gave me feedback on my first draft of that paper. He had ripped it to shreds and I thought to myself, “why doesn’t he like me?” We had some conversations that put me at ease that he did, in fact, like me. But that was the beginning of me adoring the peer-review process – that process that’s ultimate aim is to make the research better, more valuable, and more trustworthy in its design and description.
During that first year Dr. Hsiang and I shared a room. We talked about the psychophysical research that Dr. Snook and Dr. Ciriello had done and were doing at that time. I picked his giant brain about biomechanics. I was curious about the lifting technique rules that Liberty Mutual had been teaching since I was hired and asked Dr. Hsiang if they were correct. (Liberty Mutual has always taught to “choose the position that is most comfortable to you, with or without a straight back,” departing from the traditional mantra of “lift with your legs, keeping you back straight.”)
I asked Dr. Hsiang, “What does the research say about lifting technique research?” I had expected he would do a bit of research and then give me a one or two sentence conclusion on it. Instead he came back to me a few weeks later with (no exaggeration) a foot-high stack of research papers on lifting technique. So, not having learned my lesson to ask very specific questions, I said, “I really don’t want to read all of that – can you just give me a summary of what the research says?” Two weeks later – he comes to me with a 1-inch think book containing a page or two summary of each article! So I finally said, “Simon, what I really am interested in is of all that research, which studies relate lifting technique to workers comp claims or objective injuries?” To that question, and to my shock, he pulled out only one research study! This set us both on a journey of exploring lifting technique research that resulted in a peer-reviewed paper reviewing the lifting technique research (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0169814195000860), creation of an analysis model for lifting technique (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/001401398187017), and a pseudo-dynamic biomechanically-based software program for analyzing lifting technique. We called the software “VidLiTeC™” for “Video-based Lifting Technique Coding” and it is still used today by Liberty Mutual consultants to estimate joint forces, including L5/S1, for lifting and lowering tasks.
That VidLiTeC™ program might never had been developed had I not seen the proofs for the modeling paper and called Wayne Maynard to tell him that anyone could read the paper, once it was published, and develop a similar program. This illustrates one of the noble truths about the research institute. It existed primarily to serve as an unbiased contributor to the world’s knowledge about occupational safety and health, available to everyone, including competitors, for the common good. While projects were supposed to have business relevance, it was not a place to do “secret” research for only Liberty’s benefit. The gems unearthed at the Institute were too precious to be selfishly hoarded.
Part of that “From Research to Reality” idea that was constantly put in play at the Institute was the non-stop parade of visiting customers. These were safety and risk management leaders from our insurance customers (and occasional academic visitors or Liberty consultants). The interchange of these practitioners with researchers kept them sharp to real business concerns. Sometimes the tours of these visitors were so numerous that it seemed like as much time was spent on tours as it was on research!
Getting some Things Done
Since I had over a decade as a field consultant for Liberty Mutual, I was the go-to person when one of Liberty Mutual’s customers would come to us with an applied research question. Projects I worked on included:
- Redesign of a hand-held field data collection device. This included layout, form factor, and comfort issues.
- Redesign of a frozen food delivery truck. This was the first project where I had the privilege of pulling together the creative insights of the brilliant researchers into state-of-the-art recommendations for the customer. I distinctly remember contributions from Simon Hsiang, Ray McGorry, and Stephen Young.
- Evaluation of the risk of unintended riders on the back of vehicles. This was prompted by concerns that children jump on the rear bumpers during stops.
- Evaluation of hand trucks to minimize breaking (tipping) forces and forces required to pull them up curbs or steps.
- Evaluation of a conveyor with three dimensions of adjustability to see if it reduced risk of unloading materials from a trailer compared to a conveyor with two dimensions of adjustability. This was a very extensive field research project that involved multiple researchers and technicians. One of the coolest footnotes of this project was the creation of a portable scale that could be placed on any conveyor and weigh items that would be transported on the conveyor. Ray McGorry created it with off-the shelf components for a few hundred dollars. The customer had created one themselves that cost them over $100,000 to develop and it broke within the first hour of use. The one created by Ray McGorry lasted for the entire multi-day data collection – and beyond.
Some of the above projects were for customers only, but a few of them, namely the unintended riders and the hand truck projects, also resulted in paper’s being presented or published (https://search.proquest.com/openview/9e1912ca90c13317e8fa852a2523370b/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=47267, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1071181397041001153)
At one point the customer projects were plentiful enough that we briefly started marketing a branch of the Institute that we called, “Engineering Solutions.” I was pleased to have two titles at that time: Project Director of Engineering Solutions and Senior Research Associate of the Research Center.
In addition to customer-related projects I also produced some peer-reviewed research on topics such as computer mouse use-related repetitive motion injuries (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00140139508925280), mental stress in the US (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00140139508925280), and injury risk by time of day (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/001401399185892) with my good friend, Dr. Fadi Fathallah for Stover Snook’s Festschrift.
Two unexpected benefits of working at the Research Institute was getting to guest lecture at Harvard, and sharing in the development of a patented system for measuring upper extremity repetitive motion risk factors. Liberty Mutual provided instructors for a week-long seminar on Industrial ergonomics out of Harvard’s School of Public Health. I had the opportunity to facilitate workshops and lecture on practical ergonomic workplace improvements, macroergonomics, and computer-related ergonomics.
During the height of interest in upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders associated with repetitive motion, I worked on a team to develop a measurement system (https://www.google.com/patents/US5467656) to be used in the field for collecting data on risk factors. The team consisted of Patrice Murphy, me, and Peter Teare. Patrice was the lead on this project and Peter was our electronics wizard. I contributed ideas for the system. It was routine for me to suggest an idea to Peter and he’d go away shaking his head saying, “No, no, no – it can’t be done.” Then a few hours later he’d appear again and say, “You know, I think I figured out a way to do what you asked.” I believed there was nothing he could not do. One of features I asked him to include in the system was to get it to identify peaks in a force sensor and then calculate the frequency of peak forces. This turned out to be one of patentable features of the system.
I never did have any joint projects with my superhero, Dr. Snook, but I often spoke with him and gleaned his wisdom. There were other brilliant researchers I also learned much from as well. Stephen Young (probably the most intelligent person I have ever met) not only knew just about everything about everything, he also had a broad appreciation for music, movies, and humor.
One of my fondest memories was my philosophical talks with Ernie Volinn. Dr. Volinn was a deep thinker and a thoughtful scholar and I am proud to still call him a friend. His paper on back pain reduction interventions (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/001401399185937) still challenges my thinking and I refer to it often. But what I enjoyed most about him was our talks about science and the deep realities of life. He is a great observer of people and life and could see things in ways I couldn’t. When I left Hopkinton, time with Dr. Volinn and Dr. Fathallah was what I missed the most.
I Left My Heart in Hopkinton
While I never wanted to leave the work of the Institute, family concerns made moving back to Southern California a necessity. I even half-joked with Dr. Leamon about moving the Research Institute to Southern California or having a So. Cal Annex, or just keeping me on while I lived in Southern California. None of that, of course, happened.
The taste of research I had gotten at the Research Institute kept me hungry for more. My role as a researcher ended, but my heart was still the heart of a researcher. I could not stop my love of understanding and applying good research and so my part-time hobby became doing my own research and presenting and publishing research. Since leaving the research institute I have authored or co-authored papers on Injury Risk by Day of the Week, Modeling Injury Risk by Work Scheduling Factors, Aging Workforce, and Design of Perioperative Suites for Reduction of Fall Risk.
The modeling of injury risk by work scheduling factors happened as a result of a casual reading of abstracts from a NIOSH conference. One abstract caught my attention. The authors were arguing that there is enough high quality research on the impact of work scheduling factors that we could model the independent contribution of those factors toward injury risk. I thought, “This is really cool stuff – who are these guys?” It turned out they were none other than Liberty’s epidemiologist, David Lombardi, and Liberty’s visiting scholar at the time, Simon Folkard, the world authority on the impact of work schedules on injury risk. Based on their work I created a model (formula/algorithm) to estimate the relative risk of one work schedule compared to another. I built this into a Liberty Mutual tool that I called SIRE™ – work Scheduling Injury Risk Estimator.
In addition to my continued hunger to stay in research, I also had a taste of teaching at the university level. This led me to inject myself into a UCLA seminar that had a slot open and from there I began co-teaching a graduate course on ergonomics and providing a monthly webinar on ergonomics.
Most recently, with my continued hunger for research and desire to teach at the university level, I have been pursuing a PhD at UCLA to continue to have those opportunities.
A Possible Silver Lining.
In the few years I spent at the Research Institute I learned far more than I have ever produced and I was benefited by great minds much more than I ever gave. It was an honor to work there and meet and work with such great thinkers.
When the Research Institute closed in June of 2017 it fell to me to continue publication of the Workplace Safety Index. I am near completion of the 2018 WSI as I write this. Because of my past role at the Institute, I will also likely be working to support academic and technological relationships with Liberty Mutual so that Liberty can continue to be a leader in helping people live safer, more secure lives. What I can do, alone, will never scratch the surface of the accomplishments over the decades of the amazing men and women who made Liberty Mutual’s Research Institute great, but I trust each alumnus of the Institute will carry with them the passion to see that noble goal pursued, to the betterment of society.