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History of Workers Compensation: Ancient, Modern, and Today

Jun 1, 2020
4 min read

Workers’ compensation as a legal institution may be as old as law itself. From the first civilizations to the countries that exist to this day, workers compensation laws have protected the lives and livelihoods of workers. While the full history of workers’ compensation would take up volumes worth of text, here are a few brief moments in history that shaped our modern system of workers’ compensation.

The Code of Ur-Nammu

A long time ago, in an empire far, far away, the Code of Ur-Nammu was the law of the land. The Code of Ur-Nammu, dating to approximately 2050 B.C., is the oldest existing legal document in the world. Among other things, it provided monetary compensation for specific injury to workers' body parts, becoming the first instance of workers’ compensation in the world. Coming from ancient Sumeria, in modern-day Iraq, the Code would go on to be the basis for countless other legal codes and form the foundation of legal systems in place to this very day.

The Code of Ur-Nammu, dating to approximately 2050 B.C., is the oldest existing legal document in the world

The Bismarck Model

Fast-forwarding about four thousand years, we turn to Otto Von Bismarck. Bismarck, the chancellor of the German Empire from 1871 to 1890, enacted a broad workers compensation system in Germany. This system was in response to the large number of defenses available to employers who didn’t want to be held liable for workers’ injuries.

These defenses included:
  • Contributory-negligence defense: workers could be denied payment if they contributed even remotely to causing the accident
  • Fellow-servant defense: reduced the employer’s liability if another worker was at fault for the accident in question
  • Assumption-of-risk defense: limited a worker’s ability to recoup for damages if they knew of the dangers of the workplace

These three defenses combined made it virtually impossible for employees to receive compensation if they were injured while working. Bismarck fought to change this by passing the Sickness Bill in 1883 and Accident Bill in 1884. These two bills provided pay for missed work and pay for permanent disability, among many other things.

The United States’ Adoption

After the creation of the Bismarck model and its success, countries across the world began to create similar workers’ compensation systems. In one of those countries, the United States of America, workers’ compensation institutions began to form on a state by state basis.

Wisconsin was the first to enact workers’ compensation laws in 1911 and Mississippi was the last state in 1948.

Workers’ compensation came to Ohio with the Workmen's Compensation Act, which was enacted on June 15, 1911. This act established the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, which is the second largest provider of workers’ compensation insurance in the country. While the history of workers’ compensation is set in stone, laws and procedures are changing every day. Workers’ compensation can be a nightmare to work through on your own, especially while dealing with an injury.

Call McKenzie & Snyder - When You Need A Lifeline!

If you are injured on the job, call the attorneys at McKenzie & Snyder. Our attorneys have over twenty years of experience in workers’ compensation law.

When you need a lifeline, call McKenzie & Snyder at (513) 737-5180.

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