An institute whose research has had a tremendous impact on worker safety over the past six decades is closing its doors – and safety advocates aren’t happy about it.

The Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, founded in 1954, has announced that peer-reviewed research will end and nearly four dozen scientists and researchers will be laid off when the program ends on June 6.

Bad timing

Thomas CecichAmerican Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) President Tom Cecich, CSP, CIH (pictured at right) said the closure “will result in a major loss for the occupational safety and health field."

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA Jordan Barab said the closure “couldn’t come at a worse time,” noting that budget cuts to NIOSH and other occupational safety agencies under the Trump administration signal a lessening of support for health and safety research going forward.

From carpal tunnel to opioid abuse

Institute researchers have studied workplace injury and illness prevention, vehicle safety, opioid abuse, repetitive motion injuries, disability management and have developed innovations in prosthetic limbs and safer car steering columns.

The Institute also produces data on the costs of injury and illness in the workplace. 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 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.

Barab blames the closure on changes in the workers’ compensation market caused by lobbying by employers and trade associations to reduce premiums and by states eliminating requirements that companies carry traditional workers’ comp insurance, following the examples of Texas and Oklahoma.

What's ahead for OSH research?

Cecich said the kind of work done by the Institute must continue. “Moving forward, it is vital for the occupational safety and health community, along with governments and universities, to pick up the baton and keep workplace research going. We need more evidence-based data to convince all employers of the value in building safety and health management programs, as well as providing proof for the most effective workplace safety interventions.

“We’ve seen safety programs work in keeping people alive and healthy on the job while improving a company’s bottom line, but the evidence still is mostly anecdotal. That scientific body of research needs to be expanded.”

A spokesman for Liberty Mutual said that in the future, the company will focus its research efforts on partnerships with universities that are involved in workplace studies.