Over the Labor Day weekend, I was reading Ken Follett’s, Fall of Giants, when I came upon a horrible description of a turn of the century coal mine explosion and its aftermath. The families of the miners killed in the explosion were left destitute and eventually evicted from their company-owned houses. To make matters worse, the explosion was caused by outrageous violations of the fledgling safety statutes.
Of course, this was a fictional account but it brought home what life would be like for injured workers if not for modern workers’ compensation laws.
Laws that would eventually evolve into our current workers’ compensation systems began in the early 1900s when several individual states enacted workers’ compensation laws. These initially met opposition and several of the laws were struck down as unconstitutional. In a great example of irony, New York’s first workers’ compensation law was deemed unconstitutional just one day before the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which is one of the greatest industrial tragedies of all time.
On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the lower Manhattan Triangle Shirtwaist factory and trapped approximately 500 workers in the burning inferno. Most of the workers’ were Italian and Jewish immigrants, some as young as 14 years old. Within minutes, 146 woman were dead, many trapped because the management had locked the doors to prevent unauthorized breaks. Others were killed when a flimsy fire escape collapsed.
There were no workers’ compensation statutes on the books so the workers’ only recourse was a time- consuming and onerous negligence action in the court system. After approximately three years, the owners of the factory were ordered to pay $75.00 to the families of each woman who died in the fire. The owners collected $400 per life on an insurance policy and received about $60,000.00 from the proceeds.
For those who are interested in historical fiction, The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman brings the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to life in all of its disturbing detail.
The tragic fire changed the country’s opinion regarding safety laws and rights of workers. Soon thereafter, Wisconsin was the first state to pass a comprehensive workers’ compensation system that withstood constitutional challenges. Other states soon followed. In Vermont, the Workers’ Compensation Act was first codified in 1915.
Prior to the enactment of workers’ compensation, injured workers’ had to proceed in negligence and were subject to many common law defenses such as contributory negligence, assumption of the risk, and fellow servant rule. As the poor miners in Ken Follett’s novel, they would be without wage replacement during the period of their disability. Medical bills would mount while waiting for trial. Most workers would also find themselves fighting against an employer with deep pockets and resources to fight them in court.
The advent of workers’ compensation brought work injury claims out of the trial courts and created compromise for employers and workers alike. Injured workers swapped their right to sue in court for the right to receive timely wage replacement, medical expenses, and compensation for permanent injury. Employers agreed to pay these benefits regardless of fault. Although our workers’ compensation system is not perfect, it is a far cry from the days of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. On this Labor Day,I’m happy to say, we’ve come a long way.
For additional information about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire see: