The History of Workers' Compensation Laws


Workers' compensation laws have been around for thousands of years. Modern workers' compensation laws began with the Industrial Revolution. The first American workers' compensation laws were introduced in the early 20th century and have remained virtually unchanged since their introduction.


  • Workers' compensation dates back to antiquity. Sumerian law provided for specific compensation for various injuries, including broken bones and lost body parts. The Code of Hammurabi also provided similar protections. Ancient Roman, Greek and Arab law also provided schedules of compensation for injuries incurred while working. These laws disappeared in Europe under feudalism. Under feudalism, compensation for work-related injuries was at the discretion of the feudal lord.

Early Industrial Age

  • Workers' compensation during the early industrial age was limited to the injured worker filing a civil lawsuit against an employer. In some cases an employer would offer compensation for on-the-job injuries. However, if the employer and employee could not come to an agreement, the injured employee was left with a single option: a civil lawsuit.

Early modern laws

  • The first formal workers' compensation laws, the Sickness and Accident Laws, were passed in Germany in 1884. England followed in 1897 with its own formal workers' compensation laws. The U.S., seeing the benefit of these laws, passed its first workers' compensation laws in 1908. These laws applied only to federal workers.

Wisconsin's lead

  • After the introduction of workers' compensation for federal workers, Wisconsin in 1911 became the first to establish a comprehensive state system. This system became the basis of modern workers' compensation systems. The idea was to ensure that an injured worker received timely medical care and adequate compensation for lost wages. The system also was designed to limit employer liability.

Adoption by other states

  • After Wisconsin's law was introduced, the other states quickly adopted similar measures. These laws ensured protection for both workers and employers and resulted in increased productivity because employers had a financial interest in protecting employees, injured employees caused workers' compensation premiums to go up, and employees knew they were protected in the case of injury.

Modern changes

  • The workers' compensation system has remained relatively unchanged since its inception. One change, which is sometimes considered related to workers' compensation, is the requirement of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) for employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees. The ADA is tied to workers' compensation in that people disabled on the job can sue if they are later terminated because of the disabling injury.


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