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Injured During the Industrial Revolution: How Workers’ Comp Started

The idea of compensating injured workers is by no means a new one. Workers’ compensation has existed in various forms for thousands of years with laws protecting injured workers in place as early as 2050 BC. Ancient Sumer, Greece, and China all made provisions for people who had been harmed on the job. However, the Industrial Revolution brought brand new dangers to the workplace, as well as new challenges of responsibility from employers.

During the Industrial Revolution, many laborers found themselves working at elevated heights, using powerful and fast-moving equipment, and confined to poorly ventilated spaces for long periods of time. In addition to impact and fall-related injuries, workers during the Industrial Revolution were also exposed to toxic chemicals and many other environmental and health risks. These changes helped bring about the workers’ compensation system that we know today. So if you are injured while working, know your rights and consult Dothan Personal Injury Lawyer.

The Unholy Trinity

At the start of the Industrial Revolution, injured workers were taking their employers to court, as this was their only means of recourse. Sadly, their efforts to receive compensation through the court system largely fell short. This was due in large part to three frequently leveraged doctrines referred to as the “unholy trinity of defenses”. These were:

Fellow Servant Doctrine

This doctrine ensured that employers were not held liable for a person’s injuries if said injuries were caused by the claimant’s fellow worker.

Assumption of Risk

Under this doctrine, employers could use the defense that injured workers were both aware of job-related risks and willing to accept them when assuming their roles.

Contributory Negligence

By showing how workers may have been at fault for their own accidents, employers could avoid paying claims under the terms of this doctrine.

Europe Set the Standard in the Late 1800s

In 1871, the Sickness and Accident Laws were enacted by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Prussia. These laws offered specific and limited protections to workers in certain high-risk environments including:

  • Mines
  • Factories
  • Quarries
  • Railroads

These protections were eventually upgraded in 1884 via the advent and introduction of Workers’ Accident Insurance to create a compensation system that is remarkably similar to the one still used today. The system designed by Bismark showed employees that they were valued in ways that the “unholy trinity of defenses” used in America did not. Over time, European countries began to adopt Bismarck’s system while making upgrades and modifications of their own.

The United States Took Three More Decades to Honor Its Employees

Despite the highly progressive accomplishments on behalf of workers that were occurring in Europe, the United States took three more decades to begin implementing a fair and effective workers’ compensation system of its own. Wisconsin was the first state to pass workers’ compensation laws in 1911, with all other states in the U.S. eventually following suit. The final state to implement legal protections for injured workers was Mississippi, and this legal change did not occur until 1948.

Important Catalysts Within the U.S.

Two events had a significant impact on public perception of the need for workers’ compensation laws. The first of these occurred in 1906 when author Upton Sinclair described the grisly horrors of working in a slaughterhouse in his work “The Jungle.” Sadly, despite the level of attention that Sinclair’s book initially drew, this work led to the implementation of the 1906 Food and Drug Act but did not change laws pertaining to injured workers.
The second of these events was the publication of an article by Theodore Roosevelt that described the case of Sarah Kinsley. Having lost her hand in a factory-crushing accident, Kinsley tried unsuccessfully to sue her employer for damages. Roosevelt’s letter revealed that she lost her case as the result of the “unholy trinity of defenses” when her employer leveraged the Assumption of Risk doctrine, even after admitting to unsafe working conditions.
Workers’ compensation laws have indeed come a long way throughout the years. Today, when employees are harmed as the result of dangerous work practices and environments, they have sure forms of recourse to pursue. Moreover, with all employers legally required to have workers’ compensation insurance in place, even businesses themselves are now protected from the financial effects of unexpected events.
When a person or company is responsible for the accident today, workers’ comp will protect them and the business in most cases. If they don’t, you may want to consult an attorney who can advise you of your rights under the law.

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