The Origins of Workers’ Compensation

Read about how workers were treated in the old days and it can be a little scary. Few industries were as brutal for the worker as mining, but it’s generally safe to say that companies didn’t really care about the people who worked for them 150 years ago.

That being said, we tend to think of progress as being a straight line: Things used to be bad, now they’re not so bad. In truth, worker’s compensation is a very old concept. As far back as 2050 B.C., ancient Sumerian law dictated that workers be compensated for injuries, with each body part being valued differently. For instance, a thumb was worth only half what a finger was worth.

In the mid-1600’s, the famous pirate Captain Henry Morgan would compensate injured men to the tune of 600 pieces of eight for the right arm, 500 for the left, 500 for the right leg, and 400 for the left. If you’re wondering: Yes, that’s the same Captain Morgan from the rum bottle. Bet you didn’t know he was a working class hero, huh?

Modern worker’s comp laws have their beginnings with Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. von Bismarck created the Employer’s Liability Law of 1871 in order to settle social unrest. By 1884 he would establish Workers’ Accident Insurance, providing monetary compensation as well as medical and rehabilitory considerations. The intention of these laws was primarily to ensure that employers not be hit with civil lawsuits. By giving workers a way to recover and to seek compensation without harming the financial well-being or reputation of their employers.

In the US, modern worker’s compensation dates back to the early 20th Century. With industrialization, workplace injuries began to rise, and worker’s compensation laws proved an effective way to address this. Authors like Upton Sinclair are often cited as major proponents in the push for safer working conditions and worker’s compensation for the American laborer. Sinclair’s book The Jungle detailed fact-based accounts of workers falling into meat grinders and being served to the public… leading to the Food and Drug Administration Act of 1906. The shift in public attitudes was slow going at first, with people showing more concern for their food than for the people producing it.

In 1910, a conference was held in Chicago where the guidelines for compensation law were first established, and then passed into law, first in Wisconsin, in 1911, and spreading to other states, ending with Mississippi in 1948.

Worker’s compensation has been a fundamental principle in most industrialized nations. Many historians actually consider it odd that the US took so long to enact such laws to protect workers.