My Take

What was the mission of LMRIS?

During my interview by the Gary Countryman, then Chairman he indicated my job would be to” Do good research and let people know about it”.  With Ted Kelly’s arrival, this took on a new significance and led us to a new realm of activity which appears to be unique in the field of safety and ergonomics.

We developed a new value proposition which met Kelly’s vison and lead to a new approach, new resources and new activities.  Our job was to discriminate Liberty in the global insurance marketplace by identifying the company as the leader in occupational safety and risk.

How did you set about that mission?

 First, we restricted our activities to peer reviewed research which meant discarding long revered activities in prosthetics and environmental testing – including releasing the personnel involved.  This emphasis essentially meant we stopped assisting customers, perhaps 1-2% of our activities involved customer-specific problems, a decision made possible because of the 500+ safety engineers in the company dedicated to providing safety services.  Incidentally, as this strategy took hold the number of visitors to the Institute from around the globe grew to more than 2000 a year.  However, this approach allowed us to share information with companies and governments across the globe.

Secondly, we partnered with premier institutions, made possible by our commitment to peer review.  I signed agreements with institutions involved in our overarching mission of “Helping People live safer more secure lives”, which included Harvard and U Mass in the U.S, Tsinghua and Fudan Universities in China and a major collaboration with the National Institute Occupational and Environmental Health in Ha Noi, Viet Nam

So, we were in the position of working jointly with major players in our field, of collaborating with individual researchers around the globe and of sharing our findings with national governments, other institutions and even with our direct insurance competitors.  We relished being able to tell visitors that their insurers visited us for information!

I can see that the Liberty Mutual SafeWork Index met that criteria, is that why you established the team to produce this on an annual basis?

In part certainly, even I was surprised about the recognition to the Company.  Shortly after we published the first index, I was in the audience for the keynote at the Human Factors Society Annual Meeting, and was stunned to find that the speaker, a risk manager from a mining company in Australia, based his whole presentation, identifying his risk and interventions, on the Index.

However, the importance of the approach was initially a response to the hysterical reporting of repetitive trauma injuries which swept up enormous safety resources which I was uncomfortable with – given the lack of attention given to slips, trips and falls.  I felt there should be some metric to inform interventions.

But doesn’t the Index only use the costs of injuries – an approach which might be challenged – in determining the ranking of the major risks to workers?

Certainly, it does – and I’m very comfortable with that.  In the wc system we have here in the US the major costs of payment seem to me, as they reflect time away from work measured by wage indemnity and injury severity by medical costs to be a good surrogate measure of severity.  Actually, my own belief is that they are the best surrogate measure of severity and, as the Index reflects frequency then we have a metric of the Burden of Occupational Injury which reflects both individual suffering and corporate loss.  I like that combination of interests.

Backing up a little can you describe the program?

We celebrated our Jubilee in June 2003 so the Institute had developed from collaborative programs with Cornell University which lead to the design and construction of the Safe Car, which is now in the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit.  That car had some, at that time, innovative features, passing mirrors, seat belts, padded and non-protruding cockpit features – even reflective number plates.  Several other interventions were developed until by the 80’s the seminal work by Snook and Ciriello on manual material handing limits was becoming recognized,

Early research included some of the first automobile crash tests and development of automobile safety features, and the design of artificial limb technology.   The development of psychophysical methodology and results would become an important basis for the NIOSH lifting guidelines and future workplace design, ergonomics and human factors research.  Over six decades, the Institute’s research scope expanded beyond industrial hygiene and ergonomics into other research domains including driver distraction, safety climate, warning signs, slips, trips and falls, injury surveillance and epidemiology, and work-related disability

How did the LMRIS research affect the OSH profession and worker safety?

 Well our research focus was only possible because of the army of safety engineers in Liberty. applying the knowledge, we generated or which we had through our global collaborators.  These engineers, I think were bench marks in the profession and made innumerable contribution to their chosen profession, not least of which was through membership and contribution to the Societies functions and activities.

I think that the SafeWork Index allowed OSH professionals to validate their efforts.  As you know, in many companies, serious accidents are (thankfully) rare and thus arguing that interventions are cost effective can be difficult, by showing the burden of various risks identified by the Index safety professionals were able to support their safety proposals.

Why is the Institute’s research critical to the OSH profession and worker safety?  How will this gap be filled–or can it be filled?

 Basically, the special structure of the Institute – and it’s funding – provided advantages which resulted in unique contributions to the OSH profession.  Firstly, our funding was not dependent on the immediate business demands of Liberty and its customers, provided we followed Countryman’s original advice were able to pursue the research topics where the loss data took us.

Technically, we had complementary resources unavailable anywhere else: our own massive data base of both costs and frequencies, epidemiology skills, experimental laboratory facilities, field access and the flexibility to partner will premier universities and with NIOSH.  I cannot think of a more potent blend of resources to improve OSH.

But did it work?

 Presumably, for during a little over a decade we had three major rebuilds, replacing three insulation block buildings with 93,000 square feet of buildings with eleven new labs, increasing from 2 PhDs in 1991 to over twenty, terminally degreed researchers and an equal number of other researchers and staff and producing over 50 articles a year in premier journals

Oh, do you mean did it work for Liberty?

I believe so, here is what the President of Liberty International said:

Second, we began to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace through our strength in workplace safety. I can’t say enough about ………. the Liberty Mutual Research Center for Safety and Health), who established Liberty in China as the world-class authority and player in the field of workplace safety.  Liberty has co-organized and sponsored the largest international forum in China focusing on improving workplace safety. In 2001, the third annual China SafeWork Forum was co-organized in Shanghai by Liberty and the State Administration of Work Safety Supervision.

And the Chairman said at the opening of the 2004 Institute Extension:

As we cut this ribbon today, we recognize our contributions and renew our commitment to all that this building embodies. And yet, the progress we have made to this building pales relative to the progress we made from within it.” He continued, “In short, within these walls, we changed lives. We kept our promise, and we honored our pledge to help people

OK, I get it, but if everything was so successful why, 13 years after this is the Institute closing its doors?

 Well, I cannot speak for Liberty, but I assume the answer is that their market has changed (I believe they are now sixth in the WC market – a market Liberty once dominated) and workplace injuries are not now their primary business concern.

You sound unhappy with that statement?

 Well yes. I do understand that this is the case but I believe that the Institute could have been readily re-positioned to meet the new demand from the current book of business.  For after all, the injuries (and insurance losses) arising in the home and the use of automobiles are largely those found in the work environment – for example slipping, being struck by and driving/road accidents.  It appears that the current management of the Institute failed to make that case with the business executives.

Any other reasons?

 Sure.  I’m of the opinion that the move to customer service was a strategic error and the idea was anathema in my day.  As an example, the newsletter we produced then was aimed at researchers, printed in black and white, aimed primary as an invitation to other researchers to collaborate and secondarily, to maintain our reputation as an independent, peer research group.  Any move to a customer service brochure with advice on safety was out of bounds – and that despite constant demands from business managers to provide services to particular customers.

So, despite the excellent colored customer brochures more recently produced by the Institute, or rather because of them, the original value proposition was destroyed.  Why pay for expensive original research when, with skilled PR writers, anyone can generate safety publications from others published work?

Any final word?

 With the support in government and university resources to continue providing input to the OSH community the shuttering of the Liberty Mutual Research Institute program is a national loss which will be felt for years.