McDonald, Moses Alexander.
Historically, records of the concept date back almost as far as we have writing … some four thousand years. It seems likely that the idea grew right along with the notion of one man paying another to work for him. Written laws, like the ancient Hammurabic Code of 1750 B.C., provided detailed schedules: so many drachmas (or other monetary unit) for loss of a finger, and so on.
Ancient writings indicate that the codes based such schedules on the actual disability assumed to be associated with a specific, “quantifiable” injury … broken or severed limb, loss of an eye, crushed foot, etc. The concept of impairment (diminished ability to perform a task) due to an injury was undeveloped or non-existent. Thus, a “bad back” or double vision from a blow to the head might not be grounds for compensation, even if you lost your job because of it.
In Europe, after a hiatus during the Middle Ages, the “common law” began to provide some recourse for an employee injured on the job. However, those precedents set the bar very high before the employer had to pay anything. The injured party had to prove a considerable degree of negligence on the part of the employer.
If a worker’s actions, or those of a fellow employee, somehow contributed to the injury, the employer was off the hook. Stumble and fall off a scaffold that had no safety rails … sorry, you should watch your step. A guy above drops a hammer on your head … sue him.
Workers might not even be compensated if they were injured by a "known" hazard of the workplace. They were judged to have "assumed that risk" when they took the job. People accepted exceedingly dangerous jobs – like hard-rock mining – because those positions paid better than ordinary work.
The Industrial Revolution had brought with it many new risks, with more workers exposed to those dangers. Under common law, injured workers generally had to file civil lawsuits to have any hope of compensation. The worker usually lost, but not always … so employers had to worry about defending such cases, as well as paying off the occasional big loss.
|Workshop, ca. 1919. Personal Collection.|
As suits by injured employees proliferated, industry leaders decided an insurance program, coupled with exemptions from all those legal actions, would be cheaper in the long run. In 1884, the first effective workers’ accident insurance laws went on the books in Prussia.
The trend spread to the United States in 1905-1908. Observers usually credit Wisconsin with the first effective workers’ compensation laws in the U.S., in 1911. (Laws passed a year earlier in New York state had been gutted by constitutional issues.) During the next five or six years, over thirty other states followed suit.
The Idaho governor called for a program in his 1913 message to the legislature, but nothing happened. The subject does not seem to have come up in the 1915 session. Then, in 1917, Governor Alexander urged passage of a system “drafted in accordance with the highest ideals of giving adequate compensation to the injured.”
The legislature did pass such a law, which Alexander signed on April 16th.
|Price V. Fishback, "Workers' Compensation," EH.net Encyclopedia, Robert Whaples (Ed.), Economic History Association (March 26, 2008).|
|Gregory P Guyton, “A Brief History of Workers' Compensation,” The Iowa Orthopaedic Journal, Vol. 19 (1999) pp 106-110.|
|Dylan J. McDonald (ed.), The Moses Alexander Collection, Idaho State Historical Society, Boise (2002).|