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Inside Liberty Mutual's research lab

A forest of oak, maple, and an occasional pine flank Liberty Mutual's Research Center for Safety and Health on the outskirts of Hopkinton, Mass. The center is a modest complex, comprised of several ranch-style research buildings and a more elaborate administrative building. Behind the buildings lies a track for truck and passenger-car driving instructors.

The administrative building has a sunshine-lit rotunda and tastefully paneled walls. Off the rotunda, a screening/conference room is accessible and several folding tables have been pushed together to make one large conference table. A computer hums at the back of the room, waiting for the command to feed research results to a projector screen.

On the other side of the rotunda are the research labs. One is a biomechanics lab in which three scientists are studying lower-back pain and its job-related causes. The room down the hall holds a crude driving simulator that was recently used to test driver-controlled dimming side-view mirrors on big-rig trucks. (Researchers concluded that the dimming mirrors didn't improve the safety of a vehicle.)

In an adjacent building lies Liberty Mutual's trauma lab, a real torture chamber for your wrists, according to Dianne Morgado, Insure.com's tour guide. The lab's main goal is to find out how various implements of wrist destruction affect factory-line workers. Eight stations are equipped with tools one might find on a factory line: screwdriver, power grip, vise grip, and hinge-action crank. This is where researchers conducted a five-week, women-only study designed to identify the point at which repetitive actions cause carpal tunnel syndrome. With the results, Liberty Mutual can show its policyholders how to set up a safer work environment.

"One of our goals is to take what we know and move it to the customer environment," says Tom Leamon, Ph.D., director of the center. "JCPenney and UPS pay us $1 million per day when we're consulting for them, so we want to make sure we can claim legitimately that we are the leaders in accident prevention."

If Liberty Mutual isn't the leader, it's certainly not for a lack of trying. A research staff of 30, highlighted by 12 Ph.D.s, tackles problems in the workplace and on the road. In addition to the wrist-trauma lab and the driving simulator, the company's center for research analyzes workplace environments with its trademark VidLiTec system, which measures lower-back stresses due to incorrect lifting posture. Researchers who analyze VidLiTec results can then suggest to employers a better way to set up a loading dock that requires people to lift and carry boxes. The more ergonomic environment will, in theory, cut down on disability claims.

"Most injuries are low-cost and high-incident."

"Most injuries are low-cost and high-incident," asserts Leamon. "If there's no disability, we make a stack of money. As we try to minimize disability, we're improving the interests of employers, insurance companies, and the labor." However, Leamon admits that some of the opinions posited by the center are not popular. "If you have lower-back pain," he says, for example, "you should take aspirin and go back to work." Leamon asserts that lower-back pain might be a disability, but identifiable physical damage is rarely seen.

That advice is probably not too popular to the lower-back-pain sufferer, but the higher-ups at Liberty Mutual probably smile upon the conclusion, especially since it's coming from a center that costs the company $7 million to $8 million a year to run.

In addition to VidLiTec, Liberty Mutual's research center studies body vibration during long periods of driving and heavy-equipment operation. Constant vibration during periods of prolonged sitting can cause crippling back injuries. The research is especially useful in examining the effects of different seats used in the same type of vehicles. Although Leamon insists Liberty Mutual doesn't test products, knowing which seat and foot rest vibrates the least will help the company draw conclusions about how best to minimize on-the-job injury. UPS was interested in this study because of the impact on its drivers.

Another major piece of research is the continued refinement of the Boston Elbow, widely recognized as one of the best prosthetic elbows in the world. The Boston Elbow actually makes up only the elbow joint, but a lower arm, wrist, and hand attachment is available. Liberty Mutual's center for research developed the limb in the 1960s, in conjunction with Harvard University. The prosthetic has come a long way since the days when its 10-lb. power pack had to be worn on the hip. Now, the batteries fit inside the elbow. The original Elbow did not allow movement in conjunction with an individual's shoulder, but now motors allow an individual to manipulate the prosthetic limb with slight movements of his or her shoulder.

The driving track behind the research complex is used to "train the trainers," says Morgado. The track is intentionally flooded so Liberty Mutual instructors can demonstrate to trucker and company-car instructors how to stop without skidding, hydroplaning, jack-knifing, or rolling over. Liberty Mutual's commercial auto policyholders pay extra for the training, but it can conceivably save the policyholder money in the long run by teaching people how to avoid accidents due to hydroplaning and so on.

Liberty Mutual's center publishes all of its research and uses it to train its own loss-control employees. The center also allows other insurance companies to access its research and data.

"How do you get people to act safely?" asks Leamon. "People don't perceive the risks. They think, 'It can't happen to me.'" But the number of disability and workers comp claims Liberty Mutual handles each year proves that notion false — and drives the research.

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