Where Did Workers’ Compensation Come From?

Construction Injury

Though Workers’ Compensation Insurance may seem like an entirely modern construct, you may be surprised to learn its roots trace back to ancient Sumer (present-day Iraq). According to Gregory Guyton’s A Brief History of Workers’ Compensation, in 2050 B.C., the ancient Sumerian law outlined compensation for injury to a worker’s specific body parts. For example, the loss of a thumb was worth half the value of a finger.

Ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese laws also implemented similar “schedules” for specific injuries and the monetary compensation the maimed parts deserved. Their distinction between “impairments” (the loss of function of a body part) and “disabilities” (the loss of ability to perform certain tasks) still informs our Workers’ Comp laws today.

The Evolution of Workers’ Compensation

The rise of the Industrial Revolution meant extreme working conditions in early factories. Hazards were everywhere, and injury rates were sky high. Though hurt workers rarely received compensation, they could still turn to the courts for help, although the legal framework for compensating injuries was exceptionally restrictive. The following principles became known as the “unholy trinity of defenses.” If the employer could prove these to be true about the injury, the worker couldn’t claim a farthing:

  • Contributory negligence: The employer couldn’t be held liable if the worker was responsible for his own injury, regardless of how hazardous the machinery or work environment was. If a worker slipped and lost a hand while breaking guidelines or against common sense, then they would not receive compensation.
  • The “fellow servant” rule: If a fellow employee caused the worker’s injuries, then the employers were not held liable. This meant that workers should hold a responsibility to each other for damages that may be incurred on the job.
  • Assumption of risk: This doctrine held that employees accepted the hazards of their work when they signed their contracts. To make matters worse, many industries had employees sign contracts that relinquished their right to sue for any injuries whatsoever. That’s why these unfair documents earned the grim moniker “death contracts.”

Luckily, the rise of Realpolitik in Prussia would usher in the end of these dark times for workers. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck implemented a system of social insurance, known as the Employers’ Liability Law of 1871. This provided some social protection for workers in certain factories, quarries, railroads, and mines. In 1884, Bismarck championed Workers’ Accident Insurance, which laid the groundwork for today’s Workers’ Compensation Insurance.

Workers’ Compensation in The United States

Unfortunately, the trend toward compensating workers for their occupational injuries was a little slower to hit the United States. It took Upton Sinclair’s shocking 1906 novel The Jungle, which details the horrors workers experienced in Chicago slaughterhouses, to finally stir the public’s outrage over poor and unsafe working conditions.

Eventually, Congress passed the Employers’ Liability Acts of 1906 and 1908, which made contributory negligence doctrines less restrictive. Between 1898 and 1909, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Montana attempted and failed to pass workers’ compensation acts. Wisconsin passed the first comprehensive workers’ compensation law in 1911, while Mississippi was the last state to jump onboard in 1948.

These early laws required employers to provide medical and wage replacement benefits for injured workers. If the injured employee accepted these benefits, they forfeit their right to sue the employer. Today, this basic structure for Workers’ Comp is essentially the same. Most states require employers to carry Workers’ Compensation Insurance for their full- or part-time employees.

Why Workers’ Compensation Matters

Workers’ Compensation Insurance is a necessary safeguard for today’s increasingly dangerous workforces. The insurance and the laws that require employers to carry workers’ compensation coverage are designed to protect employees from risking their health, safety, and assets for their jobs, as well as holding employers responsible for the duties of their employees.

Workers’ Compensation is able to provide coverage for when:

  • Employees are injured at work and need medical attention.
  • Work-injured employees cannot work and need their wages benefits.
  • An occupational injury kills or disables an employee.

As you can see, the insurance protects employees from the high cost of occupational injuries, but it benefits employers as well. Most of these policies cover the cost of an employer’s legal defense, settlements, or judgments when an employee sues for a workplace injury.

It can be a real pain to deal with an injury or similar tragedy while on the job, whether you’re an employee or an employer. Having workers’ compensation insurance is something that states feel strongly about and the regulations surrounding these matters are enforced strongly. Make sure that your employer’s workers’ compensation coverage is adequate and meets state requirements, and consult the experienced workers’ compensation attorneys at Fischer & Procell.