The Workers’ Compensation of the Past

Paradigm − December 20, 2016 − filed under Medical Expertise

Workers’ compensation as we know it today is a robust system of policies and procedures to protect workers if they’re injured on the job. But workers’ compensation dates back to an unlikely origin: pirate ships.

Protection on the High Seas

Earlier systems have been recorded from the onset of history itself, however, these systems relate little to the similarities of today’s system and that of pirates. Although pop culture has painted a scurvy picture of pirate ships, in reality, they often held relatively democratic policies, including a system that would compensate pirates who were injured during their regular duty on board. For example, a pirate who lost an eye would be given a predetermined amount of gold in return. Certain injuries accounted for a higher payout than others depending on the severity.

Industrial Hazards

Later, the need for workers’ compensation began to develop in Europe. The industrial revolution increased risks for employees, and working conditions became more hazardous.

Although injured workers did not directly receive compensation at the time, they did have the option to file legal action after an injury. Unfortunately, this option came with a number of complex restrictions. These made navigating the legal framework difficult for injured workers. If the employer could prove one of the following three things to be true, the injured worker received no compensation: contributory negligence, the “fellow servant” rule and assumption of risk. These three items eventually became known as the “unholy trinity of defenses.”

  • Contributory negligence: Regardless of machine and equipment hazards, the employer was not found liable if the employee was responsible for his or her own injury.
  • The “fellow servant” rule: The employer was not held liable if a fellow employee caused the worker’s injury.
  • Assumption of risk: Employees accepted the hazards of the workplace. It was often written in contracts that employees relinquished their rights to sue employers for injury on the job.

Changes in the U.S.

The United States was late to adopt its own system of protections for injured workers. It wasn’t until the shock of the novel, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, that the issue of workers’ compensation was brought to popular public attention. Sinclair’s novel outlined the atrocious conditions experienced by workers in Chicago slaughterhouses.

Public outcry compelled Congress to pass the Employers’ Liability Acts of 1906 and 1908. These eased restrictions of the contributory negligence laws making claims more easily won by injured workers. It was in 1911 that Wisconsin finally passed the first comprehensive workers’ compensation law after Congress’ federal action. States continued passing individual policies for workers’ compensation until 1948 when Mississippi was the final state to do so.

Today, there are different policies in place for workers’ compensation insurance laws by state, but the concept is universal — states require employers to offer workers’ compensation insurance for their full-time and part-time employees. Today’s laws offer greater protection to injured workers than ever before.

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