Putting a price on harm from work-related injury is an ancient concept, with roots in Sumerian law (approx. 2050 BC). Societies everywhere, even 17th-century pirates, drew up schedules of damages to compensate injury to specific body parts. And by 1700 occupational medicine (through the work of Bernardo Ramazzini) had started making the link between workers’ illnesses and hazards in the workplace. For most workers, however, work-related injury or disease was disastrous, plunging families into poverty and forcing those not covered by guilds or voluntary benefit schemes to rely on charity.
Industrial Revolution and the modern workers’ compensation system
Changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution led, in the 19th century, to the development of the modern workers’ compensation system. Technological innovations, such as the steam engine, new processes and new materials brought with them new workplace hazards. Urbanization and the move to factory production, intensive mining practices and railroad construction to meet new trade and consumer demands resulted in economic benefits for many, but also a significant increase in occupational accident and disease. While labour laws over the century began to address safety and working conditions, injured workers needing to replace lost wages had few options and faced many barriers. Some were able to self-insure through mutual-aid cooperative societies or unions; the less fortunate had to fall back on welfare, grudgingly given by those who blamed the victim.
Suing an employer for personal injury in the courts was costly and rarely successful. Proof of employer negligence in providing a hazardous workplace was often not enough. Employers and the economic interests of capitalism were protected by powerful common law defences: if a worker or co-worker could be shown to have contributed in any way (for example, slipping onto exposed machinery) the employer was not held at fault or liable. The employer could also claim the worker had voluntarily taken on hazards associated with the job when accepting employment.
As public attitudes towards the liability of employers shifted, partly by outrage over large-scale disasters and partly changing social beliefs on individual responsibility and the worth of work, these defences were no longer such a protection. Increasingly employers found the need to insure themselves against costly civil lawsuits. In Germany, it caused employers to support the no-fault social insurance program proposed by Bismarck which in 1884 introduced the first modern workers’ compensation system. Intended to provide predictable costs for employers and quell growing social and labour unrest by state-administered payments and medical coverage for injured workers, it became a model looked to by many jurisdictions, including Ontario.