This year has marked the 105th anniversary of the first Workers’ Compensation law in the US. Wisconsin was the first state that passed workers' comp. legislation, followed by Illinois in the same year. Workers’ compensation laws were the first major social legislation issued in the United States. As controversial as they were then, they remain just as controversial now. Regardless, all 50 states, the District of Columbia and even the Federal Government have workers' compensation laws.
When the 20th century kicked off, countless workers feared financial hardships from disabling and horrible injuries. Congruent with these fears, employers worried that taking responsibility for work-related injuries would bankrupt their businesses. Before workers' compensation laws took effect, an injured worker seeking compensation had to file a lawsuit against his or her employer in court.
Early 20th century laws imposed strict requirements before an injured worker could recover damages from an employer for industrial injuries. To be sure, the law required the employer to provide a safe workplace and safe tools. They also had to warn of dangerous conditions and provide a sufficient number of qualified co-workers. However, in order to recover money damages for work injuries, an employee had to prove in court that the employer acted carelessly or negligently in creating an unsafe condition in the workplace. Worse yet, an employer could avoid liability merely by blaming the injured worker for his own carelessness, or attributing the injury to the negligence of a fellow servant. They could also argue that the employee assumed all risk of a work injury by accepting the job in the first place.
The entire process from beginning to end was prolonged and uncertain, including large financial risks to both the employee and employer. The high injury and death rates brought on by the Industrial Revolution and growing dissatisfaction with the common law, led both labor and management to recognize that radical and immediate change was needed. In the US and throughout the industrialized world, the laws governing employer liability for workplace injuries began to evolve.
The first Workers' Compensation laws originated in Germany in 1884, with a compulsory system of accident insurance covering all employees in manufacturing, mining and transportation. Similar laws soon passed in other European countries.
In the US, Workers' Comp legislation was passed on a state-by-state basis. Most of the early laws covered only the most hazardous occupations and were frequently challenged as unconstitutional and to this day each state has specifics when it comes to Workers' Comp coverages and laws.