129 Years – The Past, the Present, and the Future of Safety Science
March 28, 2023
By Terrence R. Brady, UL Standards & Engagement board chair, UL Research Institutes president and CEO
This month the UL enterprise celebrated 129 years of working for a safer world. Our mission began when a young electrical engineer, William Henry Merrill Jr., built a research and testing facility to study electrical systems and mitigate their risks. The Industrial Revolution had produced technologies with the power to transform daily life, but those untested inventions posed a serious risk to life and property. With $350 of equipment, Merrill opened a small laboratory in downtown Chicago, signing his first test report on March 24, 1894.
The techniques that he and his team pioneered became the foundation of a new discipline — safety science research — and the organization Merrill founded eventually became Underwriters Laboratories Inc. In 1903, we published our very first safety standard for tin-clad fire doors. Since then, we’ve created more than 1,700 safety standards. Over 130 of them apply to products many of us keep in our homes and workplaces, from smoke alarms to life jackets, from lithium-ion batteries to 3D printers.
We have seen how new technologies, developed with good intent, have fueled a host of new threats, from climate-driven disasters to cybersecurity attacks. We’re concerned that tomorrow’s breakthroughs — in synthetic chemistry, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and any number of other areas — could be just as disruptive, and perhaps dangerous.
Our UL enterprise remains at the forefront of safety science, and today we are comprised of three distinctly branded organizations: UL Research Institutes (ULRI), UL Standards & Engagement (ULSE) and UL Solutions (ULS). Each operates independently in pursuit of a common mission of working for a safer, more sustainable world.
Our safety science mission has guided our actions for more than a century. As we look to the future, we have an opportunity and an obligation to use our scientific expertise, global partnerships and trusted reputation to advance public safety. Last year, our organizations announced a $1.8 billion financial commitment to address increasingly complex public safety risks and strengthen the impact of our mission.
With this significant financial commitment, we’re working to dramatically expand the scale and scope of our activities into emerging and existing safety risks. We know the challenges before us require us to keep pace with a faster world with its successive technological revolutions.
As we pass the one-year mark of our transformation, our new organizational structure reflects one of the most important lessons we’ve learned through more than a century of work — that collectively, our three organizations add up to something greater still: social trust.
I’m extraordinarily proud to share that we recently achieved an important safety milestone that has been enabled by the combined power of all three UL organizations working to build safety into the deployment of renewable energy technologies. Earlier this month, the New York City Council unanimously passed legislation that requires certification by an accredited testing laboratory to our standards for all powered mobility devices that are sold, distributed, leased or rented in New York City.
Although more work needs to be done for e-mobility safety, this latest advancement demonstrates that when our organizations act individually to address a problem like the safety hazards of electrification, our efforts are additive. But when we coordinate those efforts, they become force multipliers — transformative in their capacity to drive change — and able to sweep through an entire supply chain or across an entire industry.
As we look to where we’ll be just one year from now, we’re excited that both ULRI and ULSE headquarters will move to a new office in Evanston, offering us the space we need as we expand our employee base and create more opportunities to convene our stakeholders and partners from around the world.
It’s been a year of organizational transformation and exciting growth — among the busiest of my career. And the best part? These changes are just the foundation of our organization’s promise and purpose.
We continue to hire brilliant scientists, engineers, and experts doing cutting-edge work in their respective fields (see our open positions). Their important work is beginning to bear fruit, and I look forward to sharing new and exciting insights next year and beyond that will extend William Henry Merrill Jr.’s legacy and vision. Together, we can create a future where technology, merged with safety science, serves as an engine for broad and inclusive progress — a future where safety risks are addressed from the start.