Category Archives: Workers’ Compensation

A History of Workers’ Compensation


We tend to think of workers’ compensation as a 20th Century safeguard that only applies to industrialized nations.

But there are precedents for the present systems going back thousands of years. Some of the oldest societies had primitive forms of workers’ compensation. An article in the Iowa Orthopaedic Journal refers to the idea of money for injuries in ancient Sumeria, one of the world’s earliest civilizations in modern day Iraq.

The Nippur Tablet from ancient Sumeria dates to approximately 2050 B.C.Under the law of the city state of Ur, monetary compensation was available for specific injury to workers’ body parts, including fractures.

During the early industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America, employees had very little protection from injury. Not only were workplaces unsafe but they had few rights against their employers after they were hurt.

Companies were protected by what came to be known as the “unholy trinity of defenses,” as derived from English Common law that was developed over the preceding centuries.

The doctrine of contributory negligence meant the employer was off the hook if the employee was to blame to any degree for his injury. The harsh doctrine was graphically illustrated in the American case of Martin v. the Wabash Railroad, in which a freight conductor was badly hurt when he fell off a train.

Inspectors blamed a faulty handrail for the fall. But the conductor was not entitled to compensation because inspecting the train for faulty equipment was one of the responsibilities of his job.

The “fellow servant” rule which was also developed in England, meant an employer could escape liability if a worker’s injuries resulted in any part from the action or negligence of a fellow employee. This rule was imported to America in the Farwell v. Boston and Worcester Rail Road case in 1842, in which a railroad worker who lost a hand was unable to successfully sue his employer because his injury was caused by the negligence of a fellow employee.

Even if an employee had not contributed to his own injury and a fellow worker could not be blamed by an employer, the idea of assumption of risk barred many workers from taking legal action. Many industries forced contracts on their workers in which they abdicated their right to sue for injury from the outset. These contracts became known as the “worker’s right to die,” or “death contracts.”

As societies became rapidly industrialized the toll of deaths and injuries grew. Some legislators came to see more protections for workers as desirable for motivating workforces.

The first step toward a modern workers’ compensation system was taken in Germany in the late 19th Century through the Employers’ Liability Law of 1871 which provided a degree of protection to workers in certain industries, quarries, railroads, and mines.

Britain followed suit in 1880 when Prime Minister William Gladstone backed the Employer’s Liability Act. This legislation theoretically abolished the old common-law defenses, but it did not establish a “no-fault” system. The employee needed to prove negligence on the behalf of an employer to collect a payment.

Change did not begin in America until the early 20th Century, although some states had made minor changes earlier. Georgia passed an Employers Liability Act in 1855 which permitted injured employees to sue the employer and then prove a negligent act or omission.

Congress passed the Employers’ Liability Acts of 1906 and 1908, which ensured the law of contributory negligence was less harsh on workers.

Although there was some support for workers’ compensation laws and tort reforms in industry, the idea of a patchwork of different legislation among states was met with some resistance from employers.

However, workers’ compensation became a key initiative of the Progressive movement, led by the National Civic Federation with the powerful political backing of U. S. president Theodore Roosevelt.

The first comprehensive workers’ compensation law was passed in Wisconsin in 1911 shortly after a national conference to iron out the issues. Nine other states followed suit and passed regulations that year, followed by 36 others before the end of the decade. But many states held out. The final state to pass workers’ compensation legislation was Mississippi in 1948.

In 1908 President William Taft signed the first important workers’ compensation statute into law with the creation of the Federal Employers Liability Act designed to protect railroad workers involved in interstate commerce. It is still in existence today.

In some states statutes faced fierce opposition. In New York, for example the 1910 workers’ compensation act was opposed by the labor unions because officials feared state control of worker benefits would reduce the need for the union.

On March 24, 1911, the New York Court of Appeals declared New York’s compulsory workers compensation to be unconstitutional. The next day 146 workers were killed in a fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City.

The tragedy illustrated the need for a workers compensation system. Family members of the deceased were forced to turn to the courts to force Triangle to compensate the injured and the relatives of the dead workers. A lawsuit against the owners resulted in the 23 families being paid $75 each in damages. New York adopted a workers’ compensation law in 1913 that would weather constitutional challenges.

Southern states were slower to enact worker’s compensation legislation. Georgia was the 42nd state to do so in 1920 and only after the Second World War was the whole nation covered.


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