In 1911, the only option for a worker that was injured on the job was to sue in a civil or “tort” action; this did not differ from any other injury case that occurred with any other circumstances. This was a tough time period for American workers, as many of them were working in dangerous factories in conditions that were far from ideal, and they were unable to protect themselves. The big downside to these civil cases was that a worker had to prove (using their own time and expense) that an employer or fellow employee was negligent…and this made it extremely difficult to then recover any damages at all. Not to mention the possible repercussions of going against your employer.
However, as early as 1905 there was a trend that had begun in Massachusetts and Wisconsin that was gradually spreading; juries and judges were actually starting to reward employees more on injury cases that occurred while at work. This was not an easy struggle! The government would actually close down law practice after practice that had pursued this initiative.
After many unsuccessful attempts, however, Wisconsin’s Worker’s Compensation Act was recognized by the federal government in 1911. This Act sought to remove employers’ three common law defenses and push the intent of the law to prompt compensation. This became the norm and widely embraced, but it also came with limits that were placed on wage loss benefits, a cap on medical compensation, disability, and rehabilitation retraining. Even with the limitations in compensation, this was still better than risking gaining nothing at all, as had happened to many injured workers in the past. The value of an employee really became the driving force of this movement, and an awareness grew that families needed to be provided for if a worker was disabled or even killed.
Outside of the United States, many other countries were already practicing worker’s compensation/ worker’s insurance practices long before 1911. In 1884, Prussia passed the Worker’s Accident Insurance law, and then in 1887 England actually mirrored this same law (minus injuries caused by fellow employees). What is important about this, though, is that The Worker’s Accident Insurance Law of Prussia is believed to be the model for modern worker’s compensation in America.
Nowadays, of course, the Worker’s Compensation Act has been revised and included in states across the country, but the main value still remains, and workers no longer need to suffer physical and financial harm with no recourse. Laws vary state to state but all states have workers compensation laws in place. Many dangerous jobs and countless employees would not have the protection they do today if not for the long history of this law and the determination of those early supporters in 1905 to 1920.