The country is about to lose a major player in safety and health research, and it couldn’t come at a worse time.
We have heard from multiple sources that Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, the premier private sector researcher establishment in occupational safety and health, will abruptly close its doors within the next few weeks.
Reading this newsletter or the major media can sometimes make you think that workplace safety and health is all about politics. But it’s actually about people, and the science of keeping working people alive and healthy. And good scientific findings — along with the benefits that come from science — are dependent on research.
“It’s shocking and a sad day for safety and health,” said Steve Newell, a partner at ORCHSE Strategies, LLC, a consulting firm that provides workplace safety and health information and forums for industry health and safety leaders. Owned and operated by Liberty Mutual Insurance, the Institute has done significant and important work in the prevention component of workers’ compensation since it was founded over 60 years ago. Institute researchers have performed numerous pathbreaking studies on prevention, disability management and a range of other topics important to workplace injury and illness prevention.
Newell explains that “We face major technical challenges in safety and health. It’s a technical profession, sometimes based on belief — because we often don’t have enough science when we’re dealing with complicated topics such as risk and infrequent catastrophic events. This is a significant loss.”
“This is an unfortunate sign of the growing distance between the workers’ compensation industry and injury prevention” — Dr. David Michaels
Founded in 1954, the Institute is probably best known to the public for its estimates of the costs of injury and illness in the workplace. Using the most recent data, the 2017 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index estimated that workplace injuries and accidents that cause employees to miss six or more days of work cost U.S. employers $59.9 billion in 2014. The Institute also breaks the data down. For example, they estimate that
The top five injury causes (led by overexertion, same-level falls and falls to a lower level) accounted for 64.8 percent of the total cost burden, and the remaining five of the top 10 injury causes accounted for 17.7 percent of the total direct cost of disabling injuries.
The 10 leading causes of the most disabling work-related injuries account for $49.9 billion, or 83.4 percent of the total cost of $59.9 billion. The top three causes – which collectively represent almost half of the cost of the leading accidents – are overexertion ($13.8 billion, 23 percent), falls on same level ($10.6 billion, 17.7 percent) and falls to lower level ($5.5 billion, 9.2 percent).
Anyone reading the Confined Space Weekly Toll, or looking at BLS fatality numbers may note the high number of traffic-related fatalities that kill workers. Some may throw up there hands and figure there’s nothing to be done. But that would be wrong. The Institute has conducted extensive research on why vehicle crashes occur and how to prevent them.
One study, for example, examined how a driver’s level of interest in non-driving-related information — such as radio news items — impacted their performance, as well as dangers associated with driving while fatigued. The result of this research may lead to the development of “drowsy-driving countermeasures, such as in-vehicle systems that monitor the driver’s condition and warn of potentially dangerous fatigue levels,” leading causes of serious nonfatal workplace injuries and trends over time. The Institute also has centers for epidemiology, ergonomics, behavioral sciences and disability research and has research and recommendations on preventing falls, “among the top 10 causes of the most serious and costly nonfatal US work injuries.”
Opioid abuse is high in the headlines these days, and there is considerable evidence that much of that abuse may be related to treatment for work-related injuries. The Institute has been all over that issue: “Our prior research identified early opioid prescriptions as a significant risk factor for prolonged disability, extended medical care and prolonged opioid use among workers with occupational low back pain. These studies led to new treatment guidelines that strongly discourage early use of opioids for non-traumatic occupational musculoskeletal injuries.”
“The abrupt end of this program will do incalculable damage to workplace safety and health in this country.” — Dr. Jack Dennerlein
“There’s nothing quite like it in terms of a private insurance company providing support,” according to Dr. Jack Dennerlein, an Adjunct Professor of Ergonomics and Safety at Harvard University and one of the country’s leading experts on ergonomics.
Dennerlein notes that the Institute has developed strong relationships with a number of leading universities over many decades, including Harvard, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and Amherst, as well as MIT, and they’ve sponsored numerous post-doctoral fellowships — all of which will now come to an abrupt halt when the Institute’s funding is pulled. Dennerlein credits the Institute for supporting him at the beginning of his career.
He worries that with budget cuts in government agencies like NIOSH, it will be hard to find that kind of support for future health and safety researchers. “The contribution that the Institute has made over the years has been incredible,” Dennerlein said. “From determining weight limits for airplane baggage to developing training for managers to keep people with injuries at work productive. The abrupt end of this program will do incalculable damage to workplace safety and health in this country.”
There have been hints for a while that Liberty’s priorities were changing. In 2015, Liberty announced that it was “pulling back” from the Workers Compensation market “as its profits get squeezed by increasing medical costs and changing state regulations.” Industry experts think that would be bad for workers, causing employers to cut back on injury benefits or challenge claims submitted by workers.
Liberty’s falling interest in workers’ comp has been blamed on rising medical costs and “shifting regulatory environments” as employers and trade associations lobby to reduce premiums and some states drop requirements that companies carry traditional workers’ comp insurance, following the examples of Texas and Oklahoma.
At that time, Liberty spokespersons said that they would focus on “more profitable” parts of the business like safety consulting and the firm “remains committed to the workplace safety studies it conducts at the company’s research institute for safety.”
But at its 60th anniversary in 2014, the Institute’s Director, Y. Ian Noy, noting some organizational changes, nevertheless stressed that “What will not change is the mandate to generate scientific knowledge to help reduce injuries and disability. That noble goal, which aligns with Liberty Mutual’s stated endeavor to help people live safer, more secure lives, will continue to serve as our strategic compass.”
Three years later, that is clearly not the case.