Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Is the centenary of workers' comp worth celebrating?

Workers’ compensation in its present form is a concept that is about 100 years old in North America.  Germany celebrated the 125th anniversary of its workers’ compensation last year.  Wisconsin and Ohio are celebrating their century of workers’ compensation in 2011.  In Canada, Ontario will reach the 100 year mark in 2014 while WorkSafeBC’s next hundred years will begin on January 1, 2017.

Is there really something to celebrate?  In one sense, celebration is hardly the word one ought to use for a system that exists because of the injury, disease and death imposed on workers as a consequence of their employment.  Those of us working in worker’s compensation, occupational health and safety, and prevention are keenly aware that our careers flow from failures to secure the safety and health of workers.  On the other hand, it is the sincere belief that we can make a difference that draws us to this work.  There is something positive about having that privilege.

Looking at the past 100 years another way, there are clearly some grounds for celebration.  The establishment of workers’ compensation has certainly provided an alternative to fault systems that often involve lengthy legal battles.  Employers today may not fully comprehend the value proposition contained in the historic compromise that is the basis for workers’ compensation.  No CEO, owner or manager alive today can recall the world before worker’s compensation became the exclusive remedy, barring the injured worker from suing his employer or fellow workers for work-related injury.  Aside from the odd case of non-workers taking action against an employer that gets widely reported in the media, workers have no frame of reference for considering the legal costs and delays that are inherent in most suits.

Workers’ compensation systems have other advantages for employers and workers that are worthy of celebration.  The pooling and mutualization of risks and claims costs by sector provides employers with more predictable costs in the form of relatively stable premiums.  The structure and design of experience rating and discount systems such as COR for employer prevention and disability management programs may also provide incentives for employers to invest in safety and disability management/return-to-work programs.  Safer workplaces and safe, durable return to work for workers are worth celebrating.

The exclusive state fund model is also one worth celebrating.  The German DGUV page for their 125th gives a great little history of the evolution of their system.  The Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation flash slide show celebrating its 100 years  is engaging and speaks to the future as well as the past. 

The US Workers’ Compensation Centennial Commission website is another great resource for reflecting on how far workers’ compensation has come.  This distinguished group of business, labour and government leaders  (mostly based in Wisconsin where the centenary celebrations will be held), includes the AFL-CIO, National Association of Manufacturers, former governors and current workers’ compensation administrators.  Sponsors include the AMA, NCCI, ISO and other private insurers, industry services organizations. 

A century of workers’ compensation is worth celebrating.  If workers’ compensation did not exist, I am certain there would be pressure from workers and employers to create it. And despite the wide range of arrangements by which it is achieved, workers’ compensation promises to be a vital and important part of the public policy for many years to come.

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