Safety Research: A Brief History

April 14th, 2010 by The Responsibility Project

Since 1912, Liberty Mutual has used science to improve safety.

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The Responsibility Project

Liberty Mutual’s first employee, David Beyer, was an industrial safety engineer who formed the company’s accident prevention department in 1912, offering customers the help of trained safety professionals as part of their insurance coverage. Nearly 30 years before Jane Russell shocked the American cinematic landscape in a Howard Hughes picture of the same name, Beyer had partnered with Paramount Pictures in 1918 to produce an 18-minute safety film called The Outlaw, and later, The Hand of Fate, a more elaborate picture on the topic of workplace safety that more than a quarter million Liberty Mutual employees watched in the 1920s.

From the basement of Liberty Mutual's home office in Boston, researchers began developing safety innovations and investigated occupational disease control, coming up with early achievements like industrial machine guards to protect factory workers from losing or injuring hands, and an emergency escalator shut-off switch to prevent injuries to children when their shoes got caught under a moving step.

During the Depression era, the company formed a partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health to investigate the causes and control of occupational diseases.  Today that collaboration continues with a focus on occupational injuries and has led to a tradition of peer-review publication and national and international collaboration.

As its research expanded, Liberty Mutual opened the Research Institute for Safety in 1954 in its current location in Hopkinton, Mass., adding labs dedicated to investigating workplace hazards (such as slips, trip and falls, repetitive motion exposures, heavy lifting...etc.). Later vehicle safety prototype cars (Survival Cars I and II) were added to the mix, which tested collapsible steering columns, arm and headrests, air bags, and seatbelts. 1959 saw the opening of a test track at the Institute.

In the 1960s, the Institute worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School to develop the Boston Elbow —the first battery-powered prosthetic elbow to restore movement for upper extremity amputees. Over the years, the original design was refined, resulting in a 2001 technical advancement called the Boston Digital Arm, the first microcomputer-based prosthetic elbow.

From innovations that helped safely renovate the White House in the 1950s, to developing special man-hoist cages that kept workers safe while building the 630-foot-high St. Louis Arch, to its current work on measuring people’s perception of floor slipperiness and developing software that can take the stress off workers who spend many hours working with a computer mouse each day, the Institute continues to evolve with the times.

For photos from the Institute’s history and more information, click here.