Risk & Insurance

Playing it safely: Liberty Mutual’s Research Institute for Safety–celebrating its 50th birthday this month–has been at the forefront of the battle against occupational injuries in the United States. In the next 50 years, it will continue to flex its muscles around the world.

Off the beaten path in suburban Massachusetts, there is a serene patch of land located in the town of Hopkinton. It’s a sleepy, verdant setting where one might expect to find a sprawling ranch or maybe a dairy farm full of heifers grazing in the midday sun.

But looks can be deceiving. This grassy spread is actually home to the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, a bustling, state-of-the-art hub of scientific activity known the world over for its contributions to the advancement of occupational injury research–with awards and honors too numerous to list. Thanks to its recent expansion, more than doubling hi size to 93,000 square feet, the Institute is now nearly as formidable in physical stature as it is in reputation.

More than 70 research projects are underway at any time, in field studies as well as within the walls of the Institute’s 11 labs. Subjects are recruited from the real-world workforce and closely simulating actual work conditions.


The Institute was officially founded in 1954, but its origin dates much further back. The founders of Liberty Mutual, setting up shop in 1912, recognized the key role that safety could ultimately play in their ability to achieve their financial and philosophical goals.

As early as 1918, Liberty Mutual was making a significant investment in preventing occupational injuries, including funding a safety film called “The Outlaw,” an 18-minute Chaplin-esque silent produced in conjunction with Paramount Pictures.  In those early years, Liberty Mutual had already enlisted the aid of full-time researchers to study the causes of workplace accidents and to develop preventive strategies. Their findings were cutting edge for the time, despite the fact that those hardy few labored away in the basement of Liberty Mutual’s Boston headquarters.

Among those early breakthroughs was the development of machine guarding designs and recommendations that would become the basis for the American National Standards Institute machine guarding standards, as well as the standards still used by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

By 1954, the research arm had outgrown its accommodations and was relocated to a 1,000-square-feet building on its current home in Hopkinton. It had outgrown its status as a small department within the company and was given the official designation as the Liberty Mutual Research Center for Safety and Health, the title it would keep until it was renamed in 2003.

Researchers took advantage of their expanded resources and turned their sights on the relatively unknown field of ergonomics. In the 1960s, researchers established the maximum acceptable weights and forces workers can lift, lower, push, pull or carry without excessive fatigue. This helped employers understand how to redesign job tasks to reduce workers’ risk of injuries from overexertion.

In 1999, the Institute branched out. Liberty Mutual had long recognized that despite prevention, accidents were bound to happen and employers could benefit from understanding how to minimize the impact of workplace injuries. So it created the Center for Disability Research, an adjunct to its existing work, which became known as the Center for Safety Research.

“Our focus is to understand why people become disabled, how that can be prevented and what types of things are effective in not only preventing disability, but also helping people get back to work efficiently, quickly and safely–and to be able to sustain their return to work,” says Glenn Pransky, director of the Center for Disability Research.


Though great advances have been made worldwide in the areas of workplace health and safety within the last 50 years, the Institute’s mission remains unique in its focus on occupational injuries.

The Institute’s director, Tom Leamon, is adamant on this point. “Every school of public health in the world and certainly in this country, has a significant program on occupational health … but no research on occupational injury. Everyone has the impression that [occupational] illness is worse than injury, but if you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, there are 400,000 new diseases a year, and 6 million new injuries. Someone ought to be paying attention to that.”
It is also unique in that it is still the only facility of its kind funded by an insurance company. All other comparable organizations are either government entities or affiliates of universities.

The significance of that fact is not lost on those who make insurance decisions for their companies. “It is mystifying to me that more such institutes do not exist,” says Beaumont Vance, a risk management specialist at Sun Microsystems in Broomfield, Colo. “Risk managers and underwriters alike often complain about loss history and extol the virtue of loss reduction. However, when it comes to developing and scientifically testing products that actually address the problems, the talk does not translate into action. But here is an insurance carrier that does put its money where its mouth is.”

The rationale behind it is simple. “What we get paid for–the end result–is to bring down losses,” explains Wayne Maynard, director of ergonomics and tribology for the Liberty Mutual Group. Maynard works closely with researchers to translate the Institute’s work into practical applications that loss prevention engineers in the field can use to help Liberty Mutual’s customers achieve their loss reduction goals.


While the Institute’s work may give Liberty Mutual certain advantages in the marketplace, that is far from its “raison d’etre.” Leamon and the Institute’s research staff are an intense crew, dedicated to the prevention of workplace injuries and to the advancement of their science.

It’s easy to see why brilliant minds from around the world would be drawn to LMRIS. Researchers are free to explore all relevant questions and test theories, thanks to a support staff and plenty of resources. The politics of academia are non-existent. Obstacles are typically temporary. No tool or measuring device exists to gauge the problem? No worries, they’ll design it and produce it themselves.

An even greater draw for some researchers is that the Institute allows them the opportunity to take their work a step farther than they might be able to in a more academic setting. They are able to witness the fruits of their labors mad see how the work is applied to real-life settings in order to help people.

Explains Pransky, “One very exciting thing about working here is you really have the chance to start with an observation or theory, confirm your findings, and then complete an intervention, figure out how to make that intervention work and see the effects of it applied.”

And of course, publish the results.

“We aggressively pursue publication,” Leamon says. “That really gets to the crux of this place. It’s why we do what we do. We have no revenue stream, so the only value we generate is by establishing Liberty Mutual as the leader in global safety and health. So all of our findings, we share with everyone. Once people understand what we’re doing, we become more valuable to customers.”

The fact that all research is peer-reviewed is key, explains Leamon, because it helps the Institute preserve its credibility. Otherwise, findings might be vulnerable to claims that researchers tweaked their results to appease the customers whose operations were the subject of a given study.


Speaking with researchers about their respective fields of expertise and their current projects, one can just about reach out and touch the enthusiasm in the air. And why not? They have cool toys to play with. Sure, the work that’s conducted in the Institute’s labs is all quite serious. But it’s a safe bet that it’s never a bore.

In the biomechanics lab, for example, a dozen infrared cameras are part of the optic- and magnetic-based motion tracking systems.

They are used along with forceplates, a specially designed treadmill, a virtual reality helmet and software programs to study the mechanics of muscular activity and the effects of stress on bodies during tasks involving pushing and pulling, walking and carrying.

A giant screen on the wall allows researchers to view the results and adjust the instrumentation as necessary without missing a beat.

In the upper extremity lab, a quirky motorized contraption helps researchers study the interaction between workers, tools, machines or equipment during repetitive manual tasks like cutting meat or scooping ice cream. Brightly colored slabs of something like Play-doh inhabit another table, where subjects cut into them with knives to simulate slicing through sirloin.

Amid other machines in the manual materials handling lab, one piece of equipment looks like a torture device that might have been popular during the Salem witch trials to procure confessions. In fact, its true purpose is quite benevolent, for use in studying the rehabilitative effects of exercise on patients with acute low back pain.

And in the driver safety lab, an innocuous-looking white minivan serves as a lab on wheels, loaded with gizmos and gadgets worthy of a James Bond movie, including strategically placed eye tracking cameras and other devices that allow researchers to measure driver performance. A computer console installed in the back lets researchers ride along on the half-mile automotive test range and gauge reactions instantly.

Far from waiting around for the birthday candles to be lit, the Institute’s staff is already at work on what it will likely be celebrating at its 100th birthday bash. The roster of research projects will continue to evolve, of course. But look for the Institute to expand in other, more global, ways.


“My world is constrained by a 47-person head count,” says Leamon, referring to the number of researchers and staff on site. “I’m not going to expand that a whole lot in the near future, so if we want to do more, the only way that’s available to me is to [develop] some very specific partnerships.”

The Institute has already formed partnerships with research organizations around the world, including Tsinghua and Fudan universities in China, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, the British Health and Safety Laboratory and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Similar programs with organizations in Vietnam are currently in the works.

Leamon is pleased with the partnerships that have been established so far, particularly those in China. “Tsinghua is the No. 1 engineering school in China. And what we’re doing is combining our intellectual resources. And with the University of Fudan–that’s probably the No. 2 school of public health behind Peking–we’ve published maybe 15 or 20 papers with them in the last six years.”

On a map of the world that pinpoints all of the Institute’s global efforts, a good portion of the surface is already covered with the exception, so far, of Africa. But Leamon’s dream is to move the global expansion to the next level.

“What I would like is for this place to become a collaborating World Health Organization center for occupational injury,” he says. “That’s my ambition. Typically, collaborating WHO centers are either in government or in premier universities. There’s not a single example of a commercial operation like ours [attaining that status] so we have an uphill struggle ahead.

“So that is what drives me. Six million injuries a year in this country and nobody else is working on that? It’s the same in every country. My goal is to elevate occupational injury to the place it should be.”

50 Years of Progress

1954: Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. opens the Liberty Mutual Research Center for Safety and Health. Initial research focused on automobile safety, industrial lifting tasks, preventing slips and falls, and developing prosthetics.

1959-1961: The center introduces two prototype “survival cars.’

The Survival Car I and II, developed in collaboration with Cornell University, pioneered and tested many innovative automobile safety features, including a wrap-around dashboard, anti-whiplash headrests, a collapsible steering wheel and safety belts. Many of these early efforts evolved into standard automobile safety features.

1961: The Research Center develops the Boston Elbow prosthesis, In conjunction with Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Research Center designed the first myoelectrically controlled Prosthesis to improve the lives of victims with arms amputated above the elbow.

1964: Driver trainers attend the first Research Center Skid School.

The first Skid School for driver, trainers was held on the center’s three-acre driving range. This program became the basis for today’s “Decision Driving” program that includes a complement of training vehicles for use on the center’s skid pan and driving range, as well as classroom facilities to educate driver trainers.

1980s: The center begins conducting a series of psychophysical studies of common, workplace tasks involving repetitive motion of the upper extremities. The studies involved female Subjects performing simulated industrial tasks as researchers collected data and pain ratings. The information obtained from these studies help formulate guidelines for such tasks in actual industrial settings.

1993: Vehicle Braking Technique Evaluation Apparatus receives U.S. patent. This device measures and quantifies a driver’s performance during vehicle operation. The apparatus helps to train drivers in proper braking techniques.

1994: The Research Center adds 16,000 square feet of laboratory space.

With 26,000 square feet of research-dedicated space, the center expands its research programs and staff. Twelve doctoral-level researchers boost the center’s ability to provide science-based solutions for workplace safety and health concerns.

1994: Hearing Protection Device Evaluation Apparatus receive U.S. patent.

This portable-device determines the noise attenuation of a muff-type hearing protection device worn by workers in noisy environments.

1997: Researchers develop the portable Whole Body Vibration Meter. This portable field evaluation meter enables service providers to collect vibration measurements and compare this data to standards set by the American National Standards Institute and the International Standards Organization.

1999: The center restructures to form two units: the Center for Safety Research and the Center for Disability Research. Resources are devoted to the Center for Disability Research to study return-to-work issues, without neglecting research on the causes and prevention of occupational accidents and injuries through the Center for Safey Research.

2000: The center introduces the Workplace Safety Index.

Center researchers compiled the first-ever ranking of the leading causes of workplace accidents and their costs using data from Liberty Mutual, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Academy of Social Insurance. The index is designed to held focus public and private safety research efforts on the root causes of workplace injuries and illnesses

2003: The Liberty Mutual Research Center for safety and Health renamed to Liberty Mutual Research institute for Safety.

The renaming coincides with the physical expansion of the Research Institute–from 42,570 sq. ft. to 93,800 sq. ft. The expanded Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety includes a training facility for Liberty Mutual’s senior loss prevention consultants, personal, homeowner, and automobile insurance claims adjusters.

2003: Wrist Goniometer is patented by researchers Raymond W. McGorry. Chien-Chi Chang, and Patrick G. Dempsey. The device provides a measure of up-and-down, and side-to-side wrist motion. Computer software calculates the two motions independently.

RELATED ARTICLE: Visualizing a new standard.

Meet Tom Leamon, the man who has served as director for the past 13 years of the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety–one of the world’s authorities in the area of occupational injury.

With degrees in applied psychology, ergonomics and industrial engineering, the soft-spoken, quick-witted U.K. native is unquestionably qualified to lead LMRIS. He is also a certified professional ergonomist, a chartered engineer and a European engineer.

While there are probably other people capable of running the Institute, it’s hard to imagine anyone who would equal Leamon’s passion. When discussing the state of occupational safety in the United States, he becomes especially animated.

That state, of course, includes the work of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Leamon laughs softly when asked how he would run things differently than the current director of OSHA. “If I were John Henshaw? I don’t know what I would do if I was John Henshaw. If I ruled the world …” Leamon pauses and ponders for a moment. There is a trace of mischief in his eyes, but his answer is quite serious. “I would have an OSHA standard that said; ‘Don’t injure your workers.’ Then I would monitor everybody.”

“The reason I would do it this way is, some industries are inherently more dangerous than others. If you sit in an office, it’s not like driving an 18-wheeler across the country. That’s one of the problems with regulation, if you try and control both worlds with a single standard.

“So that’s my dream … ‘Don’t injure your workforce.’ Who’s going to disagree with a standard that says ‘Don’t injure your workforce?'”

Having spent more than 30 years in the field of ergonomics, Leamon has followed the progress of OSHA’s ergonomics regulations. He believes the ergonomics debate is a misunderstanding that dates back to OSHA’s original ergonomics standard.

“With the original standard, there was not one airline that could have [flown a jet], there was not one trucking company that could have operated the next day [once the standard had gone into effect]. So what basically happened was, people confused ergonomics with the standard.”

Leamon says those who oppose the ergonomics standard have been particularly sly in demanding scientific criteria to justify the need.

“They say ‘If you can’t tell us what the criteria is, then it’s bad science,’ and that’s a silly question in my professional view. I don’t know a single standard in any field where that applies. How can it? What is a safe level of radiation? Well, it depends. Depends on your genes, depends how big you are. It depends. What do you think the evidence is for the benzene standard? What do you think the evidence is for clean air standards? What do you think the evidence is on any standard? It’s all based on 16 rats, anyway.”

–Michelle Kerr




Article Details
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Author: Kerr, Michelle
Publication: Risk & Insurance
Article Type: Cover Story
Date: Jun 1, 2004