HFES Bulletin

June 9, 2017

Faded Glory: Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, 1954–2017
By Jia-Hua Lin, SHARP, Washington State Department of Labor and Industries; Ram Maikala, Providence Regional Medical Center; and Manuel Cifuentes, Regis College

  • Faded Glory: Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, 1954–2017

By Jia-Hua Lin, SHARP, Washington State Department of Labor and Industries; Ram Maikala, Providence Regional Medical Center; and Manuel Cifuentes, Regis College

It is with a heavy heart that we share the sad news that Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety closed its doors on June 6, 2017. This unexpected news saddens many researchers and practitioners in the fields of human factors and ergonomics, occupational safety, injury epidemiology, workers’ compensation, and disability.

In 1954, built in the rural area of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, a research center was born. Its parent company, Liberty Mutual Insurance, held an important role in providing workers’ compensation coverage to employers across the country. During the first 40 years, three barn-style buildings – simply named A, B, and C, matching their farmland surroundings – housed a small staff of scientists. They conducted their investigations about occupational injuries arising originally from a business need: how to make workplaces safer and help injured workers return to work. This unique mission enabled scientific independence from the main profit-driven business model typical of an insurance company.

In addition, through its unparalleled mission and vision, the research center distinguished Liberty Mutual Insurance from all other insurance companies. One example of the work produced by the research center is Survival Cars I and II, which were developed in the 1950s in collaboration with Cornell University. Since those early days, features such as collapsible steering columns, armrests and headrests, air bags, and seatbelts became standard equipment in all U.S. automobiles.

A robotic arm, later called The Boston Arm, an innovation in prosthetics, was developed at the research center in collaboration with researchers from MIT, Harvard, and Massachusetts General Hospital. In the 1960s, the first Horizontal Pull Slipmeter™ was patented. Tribology knowledge that helps to prevent slips, trips, and falls and related scientific investigations flourished until today.

From the 1960s and continuing into the early 2000s, another important legacy of the research center was pioneering research in psychophysics. The guidelines for manual materials handling were developed in the center’s basement laboratory, where participants carried, pushed, pulled, lifted, and lowered objects. The Liberty Mutual Tables – or, more commonly nicknamed after their legendary researchers, Snook and Ciriello Tables, which suggest maximum acceptable loads of all common work-related exertions – became the standard tool in job assessment and workplace (re)design. They have a lasting place in ergonomics and safety textbooks for students, researchers, and practitioners in relevant fields.

In the 1990s, Tom Leamon expanded the capacity of the research center and turned it into the state-of-the-art Research Institute, “Helping people live safer, more secure lives.” Researchers from various disciplines from around the world were recruited to tackle occupational safety and health issues in depth. Leamon’s vision was exemplary and incomparable. He coined a unique phrase, “Research to Reality,” and his efforts resulted in establishing the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety as one of the most respected occupational safety and research centers in the world. Scientific inquiries became more and more vigorous, as evidenced by the growing output of peer-reviewed scientific publications, which reflected the real-world issues of occupational safety and health.

Achievements from this flourishing period are abundant. For example, the Workplace Safety Index, a summary of workplace injury burden, is still broadly cited and in use among a variety of occupational safety and health agencies and institutions by researchers and practitioners worldwide. Pioneering research on management of low-back pain and prevention of opioid misuse more than a decade ago demonstrates the critical thinking and long-term view of the Institute’s scientists.

An exemplary demonstration of the Institute’s international outreach was the collaboration with premiere research institutions in China and Vietnam. As a result, the Vietnamese government created a model for studying and reporting workplace injuries via community efforts, which was tailored to the country’s unique cultural and social environment.

All research findings from the Research Institute were nonproprietary and were always translated, not only through the Loss Prevention staff to Liberty Mutual partners but also by the research staff through active participation in and dissemination of their findings via a number of national and international conferences, including the HFES Annual Meeting. This sharing of findings reflected the Institute’s belief that scientific activities without barriers could serve better the need of all people, not just Liberty Mutual customers.

The Institute’s great vision and mission were rightly appreciated, as demonstrated by the numerous prestigious awards it and its researchers received over the years. These include the President’s Medal by the Ergonomics Society, UK (1994), the AIHA Edward J. Baier Technological Achievement Award (1995), the International Ergonomics Association’s President’s Award (1997), the HFES Jack A. Kraft Award (1997), the AIHA Alice Hamilton Award (2002), and the NORA Partnering Award from the Centers for Disease Control (2006), just to name a few.

The decision to close the highly esteemed institution is felt not only by current and former Institute staff but also by the national and international scientists, visiting scholars, collaboration partners, postdoctoral fellows, interns, and students with whom the Institute shared its findings. The influence and inspiration from the Research Institute will be with us and future generations for many years to come.

HFES 2017 Annual Meeting attendees will have the opportunity to hear more about the Institute’s work in a panel session tentatively scheduled on Thursday, October 12.

Thank you, Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, for your contributions to make the workplace better and safer now and in the future.

Requiescat in pace!!