In Georgia and other states, workers’ compensation insurance provides workers with medical care and financial support to assist them in recovering from a work-related injury or illness. In the case of a fatality, workers’ compensation provides a worker’s family members compensation for funeral expenses and lost income.
Workers receive compensation regardless of who’s at fault, and by providing benefits, the employer reduces their financial burden related to these incidents.
Without workers’ compensation insurance, many injured workers might not be able to afford the medical treatment they need to fully recover and return to work, potentially costing them their savings and creating ongoing financial hardship.
In addition to providing benefits to employees who become injured or ill while on the job, the worker’s compensation program also promotes workplace safety by incentivizing employers to create safety training programs to prevent workplace injuries and accidents in the first place.
The history and origin of the workers’ compensation system
At the start of the industrial revolution (before workers’ compensation insurance existed), workers were forced to use the court system to pursue compensation for medical costs and lost wages after work-related injuries or illnesses.
The only way a worker could win a lawsuit against their employer was by proving that their employer was liable for their injury or illness. This was incredibly difficult to do because of 3 statutes that existed at that time that made it fairly easy for employers to side-step their responsibility for worker injuries and fatalities on the job.
These statutes, later dubbed the “unholy trinity of defenses,” provided employers with the following defenses:
- Contributory negligence. If a worker was responsible in any way for their injury, the employer was not at fault.
- “Fellow Servant” doctrine. The employer was not held liable if another employee caused the worker’s injury.
- Assumption of risk. Employers were not held liable as long as employees were aware of the job’s risks when they took the job.
If an employee died due to hazardous working conditions, a lengthy and expensive court battle might only yield a single year’s wages to the family. Many workers received nothing at all.
First workers’ compensation laws enacted in Europe
Meanwhile, as early as the late 1800s, workers’ compensation programs were already being enacted in other countries like Germany and England. The precursor to today’s workers’ compensation insurance in the U.S. stems from German legislation created by Prussian Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, who enacted “Sickness and Accident” laws.
These laws operated from the premise that employees were valuable and should be provided with coverage for their medical care and rehabilitation costs and also set a precedent that workers could not sue their employers.
The Employers’ Liability Law of 1871
Considered the first workers’ compensation law, it protected workers in certain industries (like manufacturing and mining) who were injured or killed while on the job by making their employers liable for their injuries or deaths. The law required employers to provide a safe working environment for employees by requiring employers to assume financial responsibility for injuries or deaths that occurred due to negligence or hazardous work conditions. Under the law, workers could file a compensation claim, and courts could hold employers liable even if they were not completely at fault for the accident.
The Workers’ Accident Insurance Law of 1884
This law required employers to pay money into a fund that provided benefits to workers who suffered injuries or illnesses on the job. This social welfare policy was the first form of workers’ compensation insurance. Employers with higher accident rates had to pay more money into the fund, which was a strong incentive for employers to maintain safe work environments.
When the fund paid a claim, the level of compensation was based on each worker’s salary and the severity of their injury. This law was a model for other countries’ social welfare policies and was an important milestone in developing modern Social Security systems.
Public Pension Insurance
The precursor to today’s Social Security program was introduced in 1889 to provide money to individuals if they could no longer work due to non-work-related reasons, such as disabilities or age. Public pension insurance funding came from employers, employees and the government.
This law provided workers with a financial safety net for workers who developed a permanent disability that prevented them from working.
This series of social welfare policies introduced in the late 19th century aimed to reduce poverty, maintain social order and promote national unity by providing an income to workers who could not return to work due to permanent disability.
Workers’ compensation laws in the U.S.
In the early 1900s, dangerous manufacturing practices, new machines, and toxic working conditions in the U.S. created health hazards that eventually led to a public outcry for compensation for injured workers.
As a result, the U.S. government began passing its own laws, which laid the groundwork for our current workers’ compensation system:
- Passed in 1908, the Federal Employers Liability Act was the first law to compensate railroad workers who became injured while working in interstate commerce if they proved employer negligence.
- In 1911, Wisconsin passed the first state-level workers’ compensation law, the Wisconsin Workers’ Compensation Act. By 1948, all 50 states had done the same.
- In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed into law, requiring handicap accessibility in all workplaces and reasonable accommodations for disabled employees.
High-profile workplace accidents in U.S. history
Many high-profile workplace fatality cases have occurred in the U.S. over the past century. Some of these cases have played a critical role in creating new protections for workers. In contrast, others reveal that some companies and industries still have ground to cover in providing a safer work environment.
Inadequate training negatively impacts employees and employers alike, leading to costly injuries, low morale, and high turnover rates. Proper training is essential to ensure a safe and productive work environment, reducing the likelihood of workplace accidents.
However, when accidents do occur, it’s crucial to have a knowledgeable workers’ compensation attorney on your side.
Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, New York City, 1911
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory was located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of a building near New York’s Washington Square Park. In 1911, a cigarette spark ignited fabric scraps in the building, and a fire broke out. The building had no sprinkler system and only one fire escape that broke under the weight of the workers attempting to escape.
The employees, mostly young immigrant women working long hours for low pay, were trapped inside the factory. Some jumped out the windows to escape the flames, but 146 workers died inside the factory. Conditions contributing to the employee deaths included locked exit doors, overcrowded working conditions and a lack of fire safety measures.
The tragedy prompted the development of the New York State Labor Department and spurred the creation of new laws and safety regulations to protect workers.
Port Chicago disaster, California, 1944
This marine accident, known as the Port Chicago disaster, involved 2 ships that exploded while being loaded with ammunition for use during World War II. The explosion killed 320 workers, mostly African Americans and civilian dockworkers, and injured hundreds of others.
At that time, the U.S. navy was largely made up of racially segregated units. African American sailors were often assigned to these types of dangerous, physically demanding jobs that put their lives at risk.
The accident was later determined to have been caused by inadequate training and safety measures, as well as a work schedule that required workers to load the ammunition quickly, under intense pressure, which increased the risk of accidents.
The accident was one of the deadliest home-front disasters of World War II. As a result of the tragedy, the Navy instituted new training programs for ammunition loading and new safety regulations, and the military became desegregated. The Port Chicago disaster paved the way for other changes, including the U.S. civil rights movement and a broader push for social justice.
Buffalo Creek flood, West Virginia, 1972
The Buffalo Creek flood accident occurred when a poorly constructed coal-waste dam failed at the head of Buffalo Creek, and the ensuing flood killed 125 people. It also left another 4,000 people homeless. The coal mining company, Pittston Mining Co., did not take responsibility for the accident, claiming it was an “act of God.”
The community could not rebuild after the devastation, and government officials offered no help. A local filmmaker produced a film about the disaster, stating that the lack of response from the company made it clear they cared about profits and production over the health of their employees, their families and the communities.
British Petroleum refinery explosion, Texas, 2005
In 2005, an explosion occurred at a British Petroleum refinery in Texas due to a petroleum and natural gas vapor cloud igniting near a trailer where employers were working, killing 15 and injuring more than 170 others. The blast was said to have been caused by a spark from a passing truck engine. Still, post-accident studies confirmed a bigger cause involving numerous technical and organizational failures within the refinery and BP’s corporate entity.
After the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) determined that the gas vapor leak happened because of poorly maintained structures, overfilling and other safety violations, BP was ordered to pay $87 million in fines.
Sago Mine disaster, West Virginia, 2006
In the Sago Mine disaster of 2006, 12 miners died after a methane gas explosion trapped them 260 feet below the surface. The explosion destroyed all communication equipment, leaving the trapped miners with equipment to purify the air but no additional oxygen. The mine required venting for dangerous levels of carbon monoxide for a full day before rescue teams could attempt to enter and rescue the workers.
The rescuers reached the miners after 41 hours, and only 1 trapped miner survived the accident. The disaster prompted West Virginia to pass legislation to significantly improve miners’ safety standards.
Upper Big Branch mine explosion, West Virginia, 2010
An explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine caused the worst mining disaster in 40 years. On April 5, 2010, 29 miners lost their lives. Federal investigators determined the explosion was caused by a buildup of coal dust and methane gas at the mine, owned by Massey energy.
In December 2015, the CEO, Don Blankenship, was convicted of conspiracy to violate the mine’s employee health and safety standards. Other mine officials and Massey executives were also convicted and sent to prison for their part in the disaster.
In 2011, Massey was sold to Alpha Natural Resources. The new owner paid the families a settlement of $210 million to compensate for their losses and to address safety violations that had gone unremedied for years.
BP’s offshore drilling unit, Deepwater Horizon, 2010
The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and killed 11 of the 126 workers working on the oil platform in 2010. The entire rig then burned and sank into the Gulf of Mexico. Over the next 3 months, an estimated 134 million gallons of oil leaked into the ocean.
This oil spill was the largest ever reported in the U.S., much larger than the Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons in Alaska in 1989. The oil spill had a significant negative impact on marine life, especially bottlenose dolphins. In response, the Marine Mammal Commission developed and implemented recovery and restoration activities with long-term monitoring of marine mammals.
West Fertilizer Company, Texas, 2013
A massive explosion in 2013 at the West Fertilizer Company in Texas took 15 lives, injured hundreds more and left behind a crater 10 feet deep and 90 feet wide. Firefighters arrived at the scene to contain a fire when the company’s stores of ammonium nitrate ignited and caused the devastating blast. The explosion was felt as far as 142 miles away and leveled a nearby school, homes and businesses.
While arson was the determined cause, a federal regulator’s investigation said that inadequate training and emergency response coordination, along with careless storage of the potentially explosive chemicals, contributed to the explosion. The plant also lacked adequate ventilation where the chemical was stored and failed to conduct safety inspections or provide hazmat training.
Imperial Sugar refinery explosion, Georgia, 2008
An explosion at an Imperial Sugar refinery in 2008 killed 14 workers and injured 38 others. According to a report on the accident from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the explosion was determined to be entirely preventable. Large quantities of combustible sugar dust in the air inside a packaging facility caused the blast, destroying many of the company’s buildings.
Despite similar incidents occurring 5 years earlier, a failure to learn from the disaster resulted in another explosion, even as some efforts had been made to improve safety measures and reduce the chance of reoccurrence.
How workers’ compensation laws have helped advance workers’ rights
Since they were first developed and enacted, workers’ compensation laws have helped advance workers’ rights and significantly reduce workplace accidents. Below are just some of the ways that workers’ compensation laws have positively impacted workers.
Increased safety in the workplace
Employers are mandated to provide insurance coverage to their employees, and workers’ compensation laws have encouraged employees to report injuries and receive compensation for their medical costs, lost wages and other expenses as their legal right.
Employers must provide workers with workers’ comp insurance information and report incidents to the insurance carrier. These employer requirements hold them accountable for ensuring and providing a safer workplace for employees. If an employer does not provide a safe workplace, they will be held liable through fines and potentially increased workers’ compensation insurance premiums.
Additionally, workers’ compensation programs fund research to identify and address occupational hazards and develop strategies to promote workplace safety.
Easier access to medical care
Workers’ compensation laws vary state by state, but they’ve generally made it easier for injured workers to access medical care and financial support. Benefits typically cover all medical expenses for a work-related injury, so workers do not need to pay out of pocket. The worker does not need to cover any deductible or co-payment, and workers’ comp laws require employers to provide employees with prompt medical care.
Additionally, workers’ compensation provides rehabilitation services and vocational training to help injured workers return to work as soon as possible.
Protection and coverage for essential workers
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 18 states have adopted presumption laws that assume any essential workers who contracted COVID-19 were likely to have contracted it through their jobs, making it more likely that they’ll qualify for workers’ comp benefits.
While many of these COVID-19 presumption laws have an expiration date, several states are considering extending the expiration and/or expanding workers’ comp coverage to a broader set of employees besides essential workers.
Coverage for mental health conditions
Employees can experience mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from witnessing or experiencing traumatic events, such as physical assault, a serious accident, military combat or a natural disaster. First responders, including firefighters, police officers, EMTs and paramedics, witness serious accidents and scenes of devastation regularly. Because of this, workers in these occupations experience a higher-than-normal rate of PTSD symptoms, which has prompted many states to provide workers’ compensation benefits for work-related mental health issues.
As of October 2019, 9 states provide workers’ comp coverage for work-related PTSD, even if the worker has no physical injury. Many other states have some form of coverage for work-related mental injuries, although they have certain restrictions for qualifying incidents. So far, there are at least 13 states that have not included mental injuries in their workers’ compensation coverage.
Increased benefits for injured workers
Workers’ compensation payments are fixed in some states, even if workers receive benefits for an extended period. In other states, such as Georgia, workers’ compensation laws have increased the maximum amount of weekly payments injured employees can receive.
As of July 1, 2022, the maximum weekly payments for temporary total disability (TTD) and permanent partial disability (PPD) are $725. For temporary partial disability (TPD), weekly payments are capped at $483.
However, Georgia recently approved House Bill 480, and if it receives Senate approval and is signed into law, TTD benefits will increase to a maximum of $800 weekly, while TPD will rise to $533 per week. The bill would also increase the total surviving spouse compensation from $290,000 to $320,000.
Georgia increased its weekly payments to ensure workers have the money they need to support themselves and their families while recovering from injuries.
A recent case of OSHA helping to advance workers’ rights
During the summer heat of 2018, Rios Farming Co. in St. Helena, California, had workers laboring daily in its vineyards. Some workers suffered from heat illness due to the high temperatures and lack of readily available water.
As a result, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) inspected and clarified drinking water regulations at outdoor worksites.
Through the Department of Industrial Relations Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board (OSHAB), the decision affirmed that employers must provide potable drinking water in proximity as close as practicable to workers (particularly during the heat of summer weather) to encourage frequent consumption and prevent heat illness.
The violation and subsequent regulatory changes highlighted workers’ rights to have ready access to potable water while on the job and encouraged workers to stay adequately hydrated to prevent heat illness, especially during the hot summer months.
OSHA cited the winery and assessed a modified penalty of $27,000. The workers’ illnesses and lack of accessible water reinforce the importance of employers ensuring their employees’ health and safety by providing adequate drinking water and other protective measures at outdoor worksites.
What steps can be taken to continue to improve workers’ rights?
While workers’ compensation laws have come a long way in helping injured workers get the medical care and compensation they need after a work injury, there’s still more that can be done to protect workers’ rights, including:
- Increasing coverage to more workers who may not be covered under workers’ comp laws in certain states, including contract workers, agricultural workers, and gardeners and domestic workers of homeowners
- Simplifying the workers’ comp system to make the claims process easier for workers to understand and prevent the denial of legitimate claims
- Increasing the maximum benefits that injured workers can receive to ensure those workers are adequately able to provide for their families while they’re unable to work
- Expanding benefits to cover more conditions like infectious diseases and mental health issues like PTSD
Contact a Georgia workers’ compensation attorney
At Gerber & Holder Workers’ Compensation Attorneys, we believe that every worker is entitled to fair compensation after a work injury or illness. If you’ve been injured at work in Atlanta, contact the experienced attorneys at Gerber & Holder Workers’ Compensation Attorneys to help with your claim.
Our work injury attorneys have over 75 years of combined experience providing exceptional legal representation to workers across Georgia after an on-the-job injury or illness. Let us handle the negotiations with your employer and their insurance company so you can focus on your recovery.