The History of Workers’ Compensation
October 30, 2018
Workers’ compensation is an insurance program that provides benefits for employees who have suffered a work-related illness or injury. In exchange for workers’ compensation benefits, employees cannot sue their employer. Sometimes, this limitation can be problematic for the employee. How can they know much they are entitled to for an injury or illness that may affect them for years? Employees who have suffered a work-related injury should contact an attorney to make sure they recover all the compensation they deserve.
Workers’ compensation laws vary by state. Not all of them provide the same benefits to injured workers, and not all injuries or illnesses are covered in every state. Nevertheless, American employers are responsible for keeping their workers safe. Some fields, like the transportation or construction industry, include more dangerous occupations than other fields. Without workers’ compensation, thousands of injured employees would be unable to pay their medical bills and make up for lost wages each year. Workers’ compensation law protects workers from being taken advantage of while also protecting employers from liability lawsuits.
Workers’ compensation may seem like a modern concept, but it dates back much farther than one might think. However, it was a long, difficult road to reach where we are today regarding workers’ rights. In this piece, we will explore the rich history of workers’ compensation from its earliest beginnings to its modern-day purposes.
The Birth of Workers’ Compensation
Workers have been compensated for job-related injuries dating back to ancient Sumer, now Iraq, around 2050 B.C. The law at this time, under Ur-Nammu, the founder of a Sumerian dynasty, declared that workers should receive monetary benefits for specific bodily injuries suffered on the job.
Other ancient civilizations, such as ancient Arab civilizations, priced specific body parts and paid workers accordingly. For example, according to Arab law:
- If a worker lost a thumb joint, they recovered half the value of a finger
- If a worker lost an ear, they received the value of the surface area of the ear
During ancient times, rulers had not yet distinguished impairment from disability. Today, impairment refers to a part of the body that has lost its ability to function correctly, and disability refers to the inability to complete specific tasks as a result of an injury. Therefore, workers’ compensation in its earliest days sought to compensate only the injured body part with a precise monetary value, without considering the long-term consequences of a work-related injury.
The Late Middle Ages Thru the 19th Century
During the Middle Ages — which spans from the 5th century to the 15th century — English common law was developed and would set an example for Europe and America. With a more refined and structured legal system, the rules of workers’ compensation emerged and became more defined.
The government developed three rules during the early part of the Industrial Revolution, and they determined which injuries were worthy of compensation and which were due to the fault of the worker. If a worker could prove their employer was negligent, they recovered compensation for their injury. However, the following three rules made it very difficult for workers to obtain benefits.
1. Contributory Negligence
If a worker was responsible for their injury in any way, the employer was not expected to provide compensation. For example, if a worker tripped and fell into a dangerous piece of machinery and lost their hand, they would not receive benefits. The judge would decide it was the employee’s fault for tripping, not the employer’s. Contributory negligence became official in the United States with the case of Martin v. the Wabash Railroad. In this case:
- A conductor fell from his train
- Inspectors blamed an unsecured handrail
- It was the conductor’s responsibility to inspect the train
- The conductor did not recover any payment for his injuries because he did not examine the train
2. The Fellow Servant Rule
The fellow servant rule, established in Britain in 1837, said employers were not responsible for any injuries caused by other workers, either through actions or negligence. Five years later, the United States adopted the fellow servant rule with the Nicholas Farwell v. The Boston and Worcester Railroad Corporation. In this case:
- Farwell, the plaintiff, was employed as an engineer
- Other workers carelessly placed a switch across the track
- The cars that Farwell was hired to work on were thrown from the track as a result
- Farwell was thrown from the track, and the wheels of one of the cars ran over and crushed his right hand
- Farwell did not receive any compensation from his employer or the other workers
Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled there was no agreement between Farwell and his employer that established liability, and the court determined Farewell assumed the risk of his job. In other words, Farwell knew what he was getting into, and his company was paying him higher wages than other workers. Therefore, Farwell had already been compensated in the eyes of the court. Sadly, Shaw’s decision was a significant influence on other judges throughout the 19th century.
3. The Assumption of Risk
Also called the workers’ “right to die,” theory, the assumption of risk principle stated that when employees agreed to work for an employer, they also agreed to any risk the job might entail. With this rule, a lot of employees gave up their rights to sue in exchange for any position they could find.
Even though employers were responsible for providing specific safety measures, there was a lot of room for ambiguity. More often than not, things did not work out in the employee’s favor.
Because of these three principles, many workers were left without any compensation for serious injuries they suffered on the job.
The Horrors of the Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution built the country we know today. Without the birth and growth of industry throughout America, it is difficult to imagine where we would be. Although it was an exciting time of progress and drastic change, a significant portion of the population suffered greatly. Many of those who suffered belonged to America’s workforce.
During the Industrial Revolution, which began around 1750, working conditions were horrific in coal mines and factories. Factories were dim, poorly ventilated and dirty. Staff members regularly worked between 14 to 16 hours a day, six days a week. They received low wages and only took breaks for lunch and dinner. Many machines had no safety features, and accidents were regular occurrences.
By 1900, industrial accidents killed 35,000 workers every year and injured thousands of others. In just one year, 195 steel and ironworkers were killed in Pittsburgh, PA. Between 1903 and 1907, about 3300 railroad workers were killed each year. In 1913 alone, more than 25,000 workers died in work-related accidents, and 700,000 were injured.
The United States soon became a world leader in industry at the expense of many lives, and an urgent need for laws to protect workers arose.
The Development of Modern Workers’ Compensation Law
Early workers’ compensation laws formed in Prussia with Otto von Bismarck. The Chancellor feared the socialist movement so much he banned the Social Democratic party in 1875. With the desire to maintain public loyalty, Bismarck borrowed several democratic ideas.
First, he developed the Employer’s Liability Law of 1871, which provided limited protection for workers industries like railroad work. In 1884, he built the foundation for workers’ compensation with the Workers’ Accident Insurance, followed by the Public Pension Insurance, which provided regular payment for workers unable to work due to job-related illness.
He also started Public Aid as a cushion for individuals who were unable to work because of a disability. Employees enjoyed greater financial security, and employers did not have to fear a lawsuit under Bismarck’s system. His system illustrated a solution to work-related injuries for the United States and other countries.
Workers’ Compensation in the United States
However, it still took more time for workers’ rights to develop in the United States. A change did not start to take place until the early 20th century when Americans began to question work conditions and the current laws.
Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, first published as a book in 1906, describes the horrors of working in a Chicago slaughterhouse. Sinclair’s book became popular and drew attention to the lack of workers’ rights. Unfortunately, the book inspired the Food and Drug Act of 1906 rather than workers’ compensation reform. Nevertheless, society was gaining a new perspective.
The case of Sarah Kinsley, as described in an article written by Theodore Roosevelt, was also a turning point for America’s workers. In the article, Roosevelt describes how Kinsley lost her hand when it was crushed in a factory accident. She tried to sue her employer for negligence and recover compensation for her medical bills and lost wages. But, after alerting the foreman about the lack of safety features with the machinery, he did nothing to improve the situation. Despite the blatant negligence on her employer’s part, the court ruled in her employer’s favor under the assumption of risk principle. Kinsley received nothing for her loss.
During the early 20th century, the states of Massachusetts, New York, Maryland and Montana made several attempts to pass workers’ compensation acts, to no avail. It was not until 1911 when the first workers’ compensation law was passed in Wisconsin. Nine other states soon followed, and before the decade was over, 36 others had workers’ compensation laws. By 1948, Mississippi became the final state to pass workers’ compensation legislation.
At that time, workers’ compensation laws were still modeled after Prussian laws. The central rule was, and still is, that of “no-fault” insurance — meaning injured workers should receive benefits regardless of who was at fault for the injury, and there would be limited liability for employers.
The idea behind no-fault insurance is that industrial accidents are inevitable no matter what safety precautions a company or worker takes. Workers’ compensation helps cover the costs of unavoidable accidents for workers while protecting employers from a lawsuit.
In 1970, Congress established the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) to investigate state workers’ compensation laws. Initially, OSHA inspectors found serious flaws in the system, which led to workers’ compensation law reform.
One of the most significant feats after the development of OSHA was perhaps the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The ADA was the result of an extensive campaign to improve the employability of disabled Americans. With the ADA, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities.
Other essential acts to protect American workers include:
- The Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972: Monthly payments for coal miners and their dependents who suffer from pneumoconiosis or black lung disease
- The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990: Lump sum payments for employees who worked with radiation and developed cancer or another severe illness as a result
- The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program: Lump sum payments for workers who became ill during the production and testing of nuclear weapons and exposure to radiation, beryllium or silica.
The Purpose of Workers’ Compensation Laws Today
A lot of what we know about workers’ compensation today is the same as it was in the 20th century. The employer funds workers’ compensation by purchasing insurance or setting up their own account. Originally, workers’ compensation was optional for many states. Now, most states require employers to have workers’ compensation insurance. However, laws vary depending on the state, size of the business and the type of work. For example, in some states, small businesses are not required to carry workers’ compensation coverage.
In 2013, workers’ compensation laws covered about 129.6 million state and federal workers, and benefit payments totaled $63.6 billion. Although we have come a long way from the working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, many jobs are still dangerous.
In 2014, workers in natural resources, construction, maintenance, production and transportation were among the occupations with highest incident rates for illnesses, injuries and time spent away from work according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Fortunately, workers’ compensation makes sure employees get paid during their time off due to a work-related injury, unlike the old days.
However, even though the three principles of the early Industrial Revolution no longer apply per se, workers’ compensation benefits are not necessarily simple to obtain. Some employers are eager to avoid a lawsuit and will not hesitate to challenge a claim if they feel it is uncalled for.
Over the past few decades, states have worked to more clearly define which situations workers’ compensation benefits should cover. Not every disease or injury will be found to be work-related, and therefore workers’ compensation insurance should not cover it.
For example, in many jurisdictions, carpal tunnel syndrome would be grounds to receive workers’ compensation benefits if a job requires repetitive movements. However, other authorities consider carpal tunnel syndrome a natural part of life. Employees would not be eligible for benefits related to carpal tunnel syndrome in such a state. Likewise, some states do not provide compensation for psychological injury if physical damage did not occur first.
Several other rules apply to workers’ compensation. For example, if during an investigation something else is found to be a cause of a worker’s injury, or if there is even a slight chance something else could be a cause, a worker might not receive benefits. Examples of injuries that will not be covered by workers’ compensation include:
- Self-inflicted injuries, like those caused by someone who starts a fight
- Injuries experienced while committing a crime
- Injuries that occurred not on the job
- Injuries experienced while violating company policies
If a worker makes a claim, and if they are eligible for benefits, they may expect coverage for:
- Medical expenses related to the injury
- Temporary or permanent disability benefits
- Funeral benefits
- Vocational rehabilitation benefits
- Benefits for dependents
Even if a worker is eligible for benefits, workers’ compensation presents a different issue — placing a monetary value on an injury and future losses related to it.
For example, how can a judge determine the cost of emotional damage relating to the injury, or back pain that might occur years down the road due to a work accident? It is not easy to calculate the costs of benefits for workers if they are injured on the job, and it is even more difficult to estimate how their injuries will affect them and their families financially in the future. For this reason, it is crucial to hire an attorney to make sure an employer or insurer is not taking advantage of you and confirm the judge is taking all injury-related costs into account.
Both employers and employees recognize the purpose and importance of workers’ compensation benefits. For workers, it ensures they get the benefits they need to cover medical expenses and lost wages. For employers, it ensures they do not get sued. The purpose of workers’ compensation law is to make sure employees receive fair benefits. However, because workers cannot sue for negligence under workers’ compensation law, they may not receive as much as they would with a lawsuit. As you can see, it can be a complicated process.
Some employees might be surprised to find out their company is disputing their workers’ compensation claim. This can lead to a frustrating experience, especially if the worker is losing wages while they wait for the compensation they need. If the injury is found to be non-work related or less severe than the employee claims, their employer could take the situation to court. An attorney can help the worker stand up against their company and fight for what they deserve.
Request a Free Consultation From KBG Injury Law
We may have come a long way from the harsh days of the Industrial Revolution, but issues still arise when a workplace injury occurs. Employers might try to find a way around paying their employee all the compensation they deserve for their work-related injury or illness. The process as a whole can become complicated. It is difficult to define and calculate costs when an injury occurs, especially if it causes permanent damage. An experienced lawyer is vital to making sure the injured worker recovers all the compensation they are entitled to.
If you suffered a work-related injury or illness, we understand what you are going through. You not only need to focus on healing or coping with the injury, but you may also be unable to work and feel the burden of providing for yourself or your family. With so much stress to carry on your shoulders, it may be tempting to take whatever an employer offers and get the whole matter over with.
Before you accept less than what you are entitled to, give us a call. With more than 30 years of experience, KBG Injury Law will be on your side and fight for the compensation you deserve. You do not want to find out years down the road that you needed more benefits then what you received. You are entitled to recover compensation for everything you lost as a result of a work-related injury, and we are here to make sure you do. For a free consultation, contact KBG Injury Law today.