Almost 70 years before the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Institute, Liberty produced a movie, (silent, of course), called the Outlaw which addressed occupational safety, suggesting that losses arising from accidents stole value from workers and companies.
The market discrimination aspect first appeared around this time and by 1961 “research” was featuring in newspaper advertisements as a discriminating characteristic of Liberty’s approach to auto insurance.
While it is difficult to capture the early work at the Institute 30, 40 or 50 years ago, for the anniversary, Liberty produced an accessible history of the Research Center:
The Early Years
Since its founding in 1912, Liberty Mutual has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to workplace safety. The company’s first hired employee, David Beyer (right), was an experienced industrial safety engineer. His accident prevention department offered customers the help of trained safety professionals as part of their insurance coverage – an innovative service concept in a time when most companies could not afford their own in-house safety programs. To further improve workplace safety, Beyer produced a safety handbook titled Industrial Accident Prevention. This 400-page text served as the premier guidebook for industrial safety professionals for more than a decade.
Eager to promote workplace safety to a broader audience, Beyer branched out using the latest technology of the day-motion pictures. Partnering with Paramount Pictures in 1918, he wrote and produced an 18-minute safety film, The Outlaw, which featured safety hazard characters (right).
In 1920, Beyer wrote and produced a more elaborate safety film, The Hand of Fate. Used extensively by Liberty Mutual’s loss prevention representatives for customer training, more than a quarter million plant managers and employees viewed the two films in the early 1920s.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Liberty Mutual aggressively pushed for customer acceptance of safety initiatives, such as on-site first-aid facilities (right) and employee training in lifesaving methods. Behind the scenes, a handful of researchers began exploring new ways to reduce injuries on and off the job. From the basement of Liberty Mutual’s home office in Boston, these researchers developed safety innovations, investigated occupational disease control, and made significant contributions to the nascent health and safety research community.
Among the many notable early achievements were specially designed industrial machine guards to protect factory workers from losing or injuring hands and/or fingers and an emergency escalator shut-off switch to prevent serious injuries which occurred when children’s shoes caught under a moving escalator steps. These innovations were significant – many of Liberty Mutual’s machine guarding designs eventually became national standards, and the shut-off switch became a code requirement for all escalators in 1960
During the Depression era, Liberty Mutual partnered with the Harvard School of Public Health to investigate the causes and control of occupational diseases. In 1934, Liberty MutuaI added a part-time Harvard faculty member, Charles Williams, Ph.D. (left) to Liberty Mutual’s Loss Prevention group. These early events set the stage for a faculty and teaching exchange between the two institutions that continues to this day.
The initial Harvard collaboration also marked the beginning of Liberty Mutual’s long-held tradition of peer-review publication – a practice that exposes research to the highest level of scientific scrutiny and ensures that findings are available to all who wish to access them. While early publications primarily focused or industrial hygiene issues, such as sampling (right) and noise/radiation control: today the publishes findings across a broad base of research areas, including ergonomics, epidemiology, biomechanics, tribology (slips, trips, and falls), and work systems design.
As Liberty Mutual moved ahead with workplace safety and health initiatives, it also recognized and responded to work issues facing individuals who had been injured or become ill on the job. In 1943, Liberty Mutual opened a medical rehabilitation clinic in Boston (below). The facility provided medical staff and resources geared specifically to helping injured workers return to a productive lifestyle. This early milestone foreshadowed later disability research efforts, including field and laboratory investigations into ways to improve safe and sustained return to work.
Liberty Mutual Research Institute Opens
In 1954, Liberty Mutual opened the Research Institute for safety in Hopkinton MA, to
accommodate its growing research program. The research facility housed two main laboratories. One was dedicated to investigating industrial accident hazards, such as those associated with industrial machinery use and manual materials handling. The other laboratory focused on industrial hygiene research and field services for the control of dust, vapors and noise in industrial set tings. The staff – included Director of Research, William S. Frederick, M.D., Ph.D. (above), a health physicist, a radiation specialist, three acoustical engineers, and a supervisor of industrial hygiene field services. The new laboratories enabled researchers to expand their investigations into several new research areas, including automotive safety, ergonomics, and rehabilitation.
While the Research Institute conducted its investigative programs, it continued to forge ahead with the development of safety innovations, some of which had a major impact on the broader community. In the early 1950s, Liberty Mutual partnered with Cornell University to develop Survival Cars I (above) and II. These prototype cars helped illustrate to the world how safety features such as collapsible steering columns, arm and headrests, air bags, and seatbelts could reduce crash-related injuries and save lives. Seventeen of the then-innovative features have since become standard in all U.S. automobiles.
As an added component of its driver safety program, the Hopkinton site added an outdoor, instrumented driving track in 1959. Researchers used the track to test new vehicle safety devices and to conduct driver safety research and training. Today this test area facilitates the in-vehicle training segment of the Liberty Mutual Decision Driving Program the first program of its kind operated by an insurance company. Over the years, thousands of commercial vehicle driver trainers have attended the award-winning program (bottom left, one of the first driver training classes).
In the 1960s, the Research Institute worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School to develop the Boston Elbow Tm (below) — the first battery-powered prosthetic elbow to restore function to upper extremity amputees. The Boston Elbow’s myoelectric capabilities captured muscle signals from the skin surface to control the speed and direction of the limb, greatly improving the quality of life for the people who used it. Over the years, Liberty Mutual improved the original design, incorporating new technologies and expanding the Boston Elbow’s capabilities. In 2001, Liberty Mutual introduced the Boston Digital Arm, the first microcomputer-based prosthetic elbow on the market.
Under the leadership of Charles R. Williams, Ph.D. (1961-1964 and Allen Cudworth, Sc.D., (1965-1990, left), Liberty Mutual investigators forged new directions in occupational health and. safety. Then, as it is today, manual materials handling was the leading cause of occupational injury in the United States, comprising approximately 35 percent of all workers compensation claims annually. Using data collected from numerous controlled studies of simulated, industrial material handing tasks (below), researchers produced tables of maximum acceptable weights and forces that workers can lift, lower, push, pull, or carry without excessive fatigue. These tables resulted in widely accepted manual-handling task guidelines. These guidelines help practitioners design tasks to decrease the risk of work-related injuries and disabilities.
The data also formed the basis for CompuTaskTM, an ergonomic analysis software tool used today by Liberty Mutual’s loss prevention consultants to evaluate manual-handling tasks. Researchers continue to make software improvements including a module for evaluating upper-extremity repetitive motion exposures.
Slips, trips, and falls comprise another leading cause of occupational injuries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported more than 250,000 disabling injuries resulting from a work-related slip, trip, or fall each year since 1996. Even before such statistics were available, Liberty Mutual recognized the significance of slips, trips, and falls as an occupational hazard. In 1967, Liberty Mutual researchers developed the first Horizontal Pull Slipmeter, a portable device that measured the slipperiness of floors and other walkway surfaces. This tool gave safety practitioners and researchers a way to evaluate floor slipperiness and devise prevention strategies. Early slips and falls research included investigations of floor surface testing methods and cleaning protocols. Today, research includes tribological studies of the interaction between shoes, contaminants, and floor surfaces; biomechanical investigations of human gait, stability, and motion patterns; and cognitive studies of human perceptions and decision-making processes. Findings from these studies provide a scientific basis for workplace innovations that can reduce the likelihood of a work-related slip, trip, or fall.
During the 1980s, the Research Institute broke new ground in repetitive stress research. Researchers began a series of controlled experiments in which subjects performed simulated light assembly work, manual screw-driving, and knife-cutting tasks. The data from these experiments helped to establish the maximum acceptable forces for repetitive wrist motion with different wrist postures and grips (below).
These studies also inspired the later development of the Musculoskeletal Stress Measurement Kit. Patented in 1994, the kit allows users to accurately evaluate repetitive-motion hand tool exposures. Instrumented knives, pliers, and screwdrivers transmit information to a special computer that plots the torque output exerted by a worker. Researchers and practitioners use the instrumented tools to gather data for analysis with CompuTask software to reduce upper extremity injuries.
The 1990s —A Decade of Change and Outreach
In the early 1990s, under the leadership of Tom B. Leamon, Ph.D., C.P.E., (1991-present, right), the Research Institute expanded its laboratory space from 26,000 to 40,000 square feet, and increased its research staff to include 12 doctoral-level scientists. These changes brought the Institute to a new level of scientific productivity and visibility.
Over the next decade, the number of annual, peer-reviewed publications more than doubled, and the Institute increased its presence at high-profile scientific conferences. The scope of research expanded to include epidemiological studies of the causes and distribution of workplace injuries, bio-mechanical analyses of human motion patterns, and investigations of the physical, technological, and organizational demands of work environments.
During this time, the Research Institute established research alliances with prominent universities and health and safety institutions around the world. In 1994, the Institute formalized its long-term collaborative relationship with the Harvard School of Public Health ( through the creation of the Liberty Mutual Program in Occupational Safety and Health (above, from left to right, are Dr. Joseph Brain, HSPH; Karl Jacobson, Liberty Mutual; Dr. Harvey Fineberg, HSPH; and Dr. Tom Leamon, Research Institute). The Program, created to advance occupational safety and health, built upon the longstanding teaching exchange between the two organizations and includes joint-research projects, symposia, and global initiatives.
Also in 1994 the Institute initiated the Visiting Scholar Program to encourage collaboration with other prominent universities. Each year, the Institute selects a senior research scientist to spend three months at the Hopkinton facility collaborating on an area of mutual interest. Since its inception, the Program has hosted 11 senior researchers from eight different countries. The Program requires one, joint peer-reviewed publication and fosters the development of extended relationships with the visiting scholars’ home institutions. The goal is to facilitate ongoing research collaborations resulting in scientific publications.
Other global partnerships that emerged during the 1990s include the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, the British Health and Safety Laboratory, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
As the Institute vastly expanded its outreach and publication output, it continued to produce innovations to enhance safety research and practice. In 1997, researchers patented the Whole-Body Vibration Meter (left), a portable device – used to measure worker exposure to vibration during heavy vehicle operation as well as other industrial tasks. The meter enables service providers to collect multi-axis vibration measurements and compare this data to nationally accepted standards.
In 1998, Institute researchers developed the first field measurement system of its kind to analyze the entire profile of a lifting task from start to finish. The system, called VidLiTeCTm (below), accurately determines forces on various joints of the body (including the lower back) during lift that could lead to overexertion. VidLiTeC requires only a video the worker performing the lift analyze the task and pinpoint areas of increased risk. The system enables safety practitioners to collect valuable information without interfering with normal business operations.
The Turn of the Millennium and Beyond
In 1999, the Research Institute restructured to form the Center for Safety Research and the Center for Disability Research, separate but highly coordinated entities. While the Center for Safety Resarch maintained Liberty’s strong focus on causes and prevention of occupational accidents and injuries the Center for Disability Research investigates the best ways to promote successful return-to-wok outcomes when occupational injuries occur.
The same year, the Institute formed a research partnership with Fudan University— one of China’s premier medical universities. Through joint research, the collaboration seeks to increase the understanding of occupational injury in China. This was the first of many collaborative efforts in China, including joint research with Tsinghua University’s renowned Industrial Engineering Department and co-sponsorship of an annual China SafeWork Forum with China’s State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS). (Dr. Tom Leamon and Mr. Shan Chungchang, deputy director general of SAWS, during a visit to the Research Institute, above). Each year, hundreds of Chinese business, government, and academic leaders attend the SafeWork Forum to discuss work safety and occupational health and promote improvement of work safety management methods in China.
In 2001, the Research Institute formed the Quantitative Analysis Unit (QAU) to conduct original studies in occupational injury epidemiology, develop promising design and analysis methods, and to serve as a statistical resource partner to the two Centers. In addition to other workforce injury and field studies, the QAU produces the annual Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, a ranking of the leading causes of disabling occupational injuries and illnesses in the United States. The first report of its kind, the Index provides a valuable resource to researchers, employers, and others dedicated to workplace safety, enabling them to identify the leading injury causes and direct costs.
The Research Institute broke ground for a major reconstruction and addition in 2002. The new 91,000-square-foot facility, comprised of two separate buildings, was constructed to better house occupational safety and disability research programs and staff, as well as to better accommodate visiting scientists. An 1,800-square-foot biomechanics/motion analysis laboratory (below), a relocated and revamped upper extremity laboratory, and a centralized, computerized telephonic data collection system were among the research capability enhancements. Officially dedicated in the spring of 2004 (above), the reconstruction also included a new, state-of-the art industrial hygiene laboratory and a training facility for Liberty Mutual’s senior loss prevention consultants and personal, homeowner, and automobile insurance claims adjusters.
Today, Institute researchers maintain collaborative ties in a dozen countries throughout the world and are establishing new research partnerships in Vietnam. Utilizing their expanded environment to its fullest potential, Research Institute scientists remain dedicated to helping prevent injuries, illnesses, and disabilities in the workplace, at home, and on the road.