With accidents and injuries occurring at the workplace every day in America, it is not surprising that employees are able to receive compensation for the injuries that they have sustained. But, it was not always this way for workers. Before workers’ compensation statutes were adopted nation-wide, many injured workers would have difficulties recovering their medical expenses, lost wages and other monies that would have to be won by proving that their employer was negligent and responsible for their injuries. However, with the help of novels and studies, along with a changing mind frame of its citizens, American workers’ compensation was born.

What Were Conditions Like Before Workers’ Compensation?

Workplace Conditions of Coal miners in Hazleton, PennsylvaniaCoal miners in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, in 1900

Furnace WorkersBefore the formation of workers’ compensation in America, many businesses, such as manufacturers and mining companies would require their employees to work grueling twelve to fourteen hour shifts. Besides these long hours, during their lunch breaks, many times the employers would make their employees clean their extremely dangerous equipment using little safety features. For example, Charles Rumford Walker wrote in his novel Steel: The Diary of a Furnace Worker about the dangers of working with large furnaces which emitted dangerous gaseous fumes. Because of the lack of workplace safety, these men who had to clean out the furnaces had “lungs [that] were like paper on fire” and men routinely fell to their death into the furnace. Even worse, employees were often required to sign contracts giving up what little right they had to sue an employer in case of injury or death on the job. These became widely known as “death contracts.” Stories of horrific injuries and deaths going uncompensated or sometimes even unnoticed began to circulate and were commonplace across the nation.

What Led To Workers’ Compensation Being Formed In America?

Workplace Conditions of Iron and Steel Mill

Although one event cannot be attributed to the formation of workers’ compensation in America, several events did help shape the way it came to fruition. One such example is author Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which detailed the horrors experienced by an immigrant who worked in the Chicago slaughterhouses, brought to the forefront just how dangerous it was to be working during these times. Even before Sinclair’s novel came out, W.F. Willoughby’s Workingmen’s Insurance, was used in an 1898 U.S. Department of Labor report helped catalyze the movement for workers’ compensation, as these reports were viewed as the “go-ahead” for legislation to be written and approved for workplace injury compensation. This legislation would come as follows:

Railroad Employees

  • 1906: Congress enacted the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) for railroad employees and erased the ability for an employer to use contributory negligence, assumption of risk, or fellow-servant liability defenses.
  • 1908: Congress created the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act that provided workers’ compensation coverage to federal civilian employees in dangerous jobs. Congress ultimately extended the act to provide for most federal civilian employees.
  • 1911: Wisconsin became the first state to enact a permanent workers’ compensation statute.
  • 1920: All but eight states had ratified workers’ compensation statutes comparable to Wisconsin’s, and by 1949, all states had ratified such legislation.

Contact an Experienced Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation Lawyer

Providence Workers Comp lawyer reviewing the Workplace Conditions of man's claimIf you or someone you know has been injured while at work, our firm works with experienced Workers’ Compensation Attorneys here in Rhode Island. You may be entitled to collect for workers’ compensation benefits for lost wages, medical bills and possibly a lump sum settlement, among other benefits. No fees are received unless you win your case. For a free (no obligation) case evaluation, call us toll free at 1-800-992-6878. You may also fill out our contact form online.

Source: https://www.dol.gov/dol/aboutdol/history/mono-regsafepart06.htm