Genesis of North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Laws and Theory — Part One

September 30, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

The laws and philosophies that inform the North Carolina workers’ compensation system evolved tremendously over the past century and a half. Innovations in industry, changes in the cultural zeitgeist, and demographic shifts have all played a significant role in moving and shaping the law. To understand the implications of current North Carolina workers’ compensation practices, it’s helpful to take in this historical perspective.

To get that perspective, though, we must dial way back. The concept of insuring workers against damages resulting from injuries and lost wages dates back literally thousands of years. In 3000 B.C, Chinese employers instituted one of the very first recorded systems of workers’ compensation. Around 1750 B.C, Babylonians spontaneously evolved similar kinds of protections for workers. Both the Roman and Greek empires developed elaborate systems as well — not only for workers’ compensation but also for life, health, and even disability insurance.

Flashing forward to more modern times, we can see the genesis of many of North Carolina’s workers’ compensation traditions in the 19th century, when so-called “heavy industry” began to flourish in the United States. Starting in the mid 1800s and continuing through the early 1900s, laborers had only a puny right to compensation (by modern standards). Many historians argue that it wasn’t until the first decade of the 20th century that a legitimate system of worker protection was put in place. This movement was driven by a handful of charismatic labor rights advocates, among whom was none other than President Teddy Roosevelt. At Roosevelt’s behest, in 1908, the U.S adopted the Federal Employers Liability Act, the first federal law designed to protect those who labored in the hazardous environments. The publication of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 best-seller, The Jungle, likely also did much to stir public sentiment about ongoing violations of workers’ right. In The Jungle, Sinclair described in vivid detail the plight of factory workers at meat packing plants. On not infrequent occasions, workers would fall into sausage making vats and becomes sausage themselves!

More Web Resources:

Workers’ Compensation, A Brief History by Lloyd Harger, Division of Workers’ Compensation for state of Florida

The History of Workers’ Compensation Laws, By Christopher Earle,

Workers’ Compensation System, Author: Kelly L Allen, MD, Regional Medical Director, IMX-Medical Management Services, EMedicine


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