The Evolution and History of the Workers’ Compensation Law

Worker's Compensation Law History

Through the centuries, the definitions of words have changed, going through a metamorphosis. They have also developed synonyms and slang terms. This occurs in any industry and for any product.

For example, the word automobile became auto and then a car. They mean the mean the same thing. However, a person may use “auto” while another individual may use “car” based on where they live and from social influence.

The same can be said of workers’ compensation. The system not only went through many changes to form the workers’ compensation we know today but in name as well. It has many names, most commonly still used is workmans’ compensation. But how where did this phrase come from?

How Workers’ Compensation Began

According to The Iowa Orthopaedic Journal, workers’ compensation law dates to ancient Sumeria. The law of Ur-Nammu in 2050 B.C. provided monetary compensation for workers’ body parts that were injured on the job.

From there, it went through many changes to focus more on the employer than the employee. In the late Middle Ages, the legal framework of workers’ compensation was formed and was defined by three principles, which lasted until the Industrial Revolution:

  • Contributory Negligence: If the worker was at fault for his injury, then the employer was not responsible.
  • The “Fellow Servant” Rule: If the worker’s injury resulted from the carelessness of a “fellow servant,” then the employer was not responsible.
  • The “Assumption of Risk:” Employees did not realize the danger of their jobs when they signed their contracts. But by signing the contract, the employee assumed the risks that came with the job. These contracts became known as “worker’s right to die” or “death contracts.”

In the nineteenth century, the only way for workers to get compensation was to sue their employer. This was a costly process, and few workers were victorious.

The biggest change to workers’ compensation came with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the late 1800’s in Prussia. Bismarck needed the support of the working man, so he created the Workers’ Accident Insurance in 1884, which was followed by the Public Pension Insurance.

It provided a stipend for workers injured from non-work related illnesses and Public Aid for those who became permanently disabled. These programs fueled the notion of providing care to workers hurt on the job across Europe and then to the United States. The focus on the employer was now shifting to the employee.

It wasn’t until many failed attempts by varies states in the U.S. that the federal government created a law (1908) that would cover workers involved in interstate trade. The first workers’ compensation passed in 1911 in Wisconsin. By 1948, every state had workers’ compensation legislation.

Universal Tenets of Workers’ Compensation

Although workers’ compensation laws vary from state to state, they all have these tenets:

  • Employees can receive workers’ compensation benefits even if the worker is at fault.
  • Employees cannot sue their employers if they receive workers’ compensation benefits.
  • Employees can sue third parties (i.e. product manufacturers) that caused their injuries.

How Workmans’ Compensation Became Workers’ Compensation

Just as the framework of workers’ compensation changed over the centuries, its name changed too. In 1880, the English called it “workingmen’s compensation” when Parliament passed the Employers Liability Act.

In 1897, this Act was replaced by the Workmans’ Compensation Act. It wasn’t until the twentieth century in the United States, did “workingmens’” became workmans.’ This change occurred in Florida as they were formalizing their own state-run workers’ compensation system.

In 1978, the state’s workmens’ compensation provided workers with a schedule of benefits based on the type of injury. Workers received a lump sum payment to cover medical bills. Soon the “wage loss concept” took root and system were renamed workers’ compensation (or workers’ comp).

Many still use the term workmans’ compensation (or workmans’ comp) because of the changes Florida made to its workers’ compensation laws. They all mean the same thing: monetary compensation for medical bills and wages lost during recovery.

Hurt at work? Don't know what to do? Contact Goldberg & Wolf

Need Help?

Here, at Goldberg & Wolf Law Firm our experienced attorneys can help you with your Workers’ Compensation claim and understand the complex workers’ compensation law. To speak to one of our highly qualified attorney’s contact us or call us at 856-651-1600.

Remember that workers’ compensation law differs from state to state, if you need help in Pennsylvania reach out to our good friends at Krasno Krasno & Onwudinjo.