Drive west on the winding former cow paths that are now the traffic-choked streets of Boston, past the toll plazas that ring the city, toward Hopkinton, Mass., and in just half an hour you will find yourself in a bucolic hamlet that feels worlds away.
Hopkinton gets one day of concentrated attention each year as the starting point for the Boston Marathon. The rest of the time, it’s a town of almost preternatural quiet: rows of colonial-style houses on nicely groomed lawns, no sidewalks (there’s no need for them), kids freely roaming the neighborhood. It’s the kind of place that lands on magazines’ “top places to live” lists; in fact, it ranked among Money’s top 20 in 2009.
What you might not notice passing through is the 80-acre plot of land at Hopkinton’s core, marked in spots by “Warning: Do Not Enter” signs. Here, trucks are skidding along a track, drivers text on cell phones while rounding corkscrew turns, and workers teeter precariously from ladders.
It’s all in the name of science.
In fact, in and around the pleasantly innocuous building that is the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, those distracted drivers and laboring workers are attached to electrodes, harnesses, and sophisticated computers, as participants in the carefully calibrated field tests informed by intricate lab tesing done year-round here.
Although visiting feels something like being given a pass to Area 51, the work that the Institute does is far from secret. During my tour, I’m desperate to learn something – anything – that’s cloaked in secrecy. After all, it’s the perfect cinematic landscape for a mystery. But as I sit down with the department heads from the Institute’s four centers, who lead studies in Behavioral Science, Injury Epidemiology, Ergonomics, and Disability Research, my probing for intrigue meets with an amused chuckle. No, they assure me, everything done here gets published; the highlights go in the Institute’s quarterly magazine, Research to Reality, and papers are published in peer-reviewed journals such as Accident Analysis and Prevention, Applied Ergonomics, and the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
Since the work began with a lone industrial engineer in 1912, Liberty Mutual’s safety research arm has evolved from a basement lab in its Boston headquarters in the 1920s and 30s to this facility, which was established in the 1950s and now hosts four research centers with 25 researchers, 20 support staff members, and 11 labs, all working toward the common goal of improving workers’ occupational safety and health safety on the road, and rehabilitating workers after a disability. These days, the Institute seems to be working at a fever pitch, keeping pace with the technology that helps people stay connected in their lives and jobs, but can also distract and even debilitate them.
I visit the various labs, where one set of paid volunteers might be engaged in a weeks-long repetitive task — say, using a screwdriver — to measure the stress to their muscles, while another test subject might be lifting an item and putting it down, hour after hour, in an effort to measure the maximum limits for workers who engage in upper extremity tasks. Most of the work that happens here is actually laborious number crunching and data correlation — not futuristic robot building or track racing.
I begin to wonder how it is that, in this stark clinical environment, the researchers all talk to me with the same unbridled enthusiasm as kids who just learned the circus is in town. There are two reasons: first, if a researcher can make a case for studying something, the in-house wood- and metalworking shops and electrical department can always build something to measure it, which makes for a gratifying full circle from hypothesis to conclusion all under one roof. Perhaps more importantly, though, they don’t seem to forget why they’re here in the first place. The Institute’s creed, the crux of which is that its real efficacy is measured by “our power to help people live safer, more secure lives,” is always top of mind.
At one point on my visit I ask director Ian Noy if the Institute will be issuing any kind of special corporate social responsibility report — the buzzword on the collective lips of every big company these days. The idea seems alien. “I’m not sure why we’d do something like that,” he answers. “It’s intrinsic to what we do.”