Having spent most of my working life treating injured workers, I believed I knew a bit about the history of workers’ compensation.
Conceptually, it’s a system of no-fault insurance for injured workers and is intended to compensate an injured worker for his temporary or permanent loss of earning power for an on-the-job injury. No-fault, meaning you are covered if the employer was responsible (oil spilled on floor), or if you tripped over your own untied shoelaces.
Most people think workers’ compensation was invented by some kind-hearted, socially-progressive governmental action, probably during the Roosevelt administration. However, to find the true first workers’ compensation system, we must look earlier.
Pirates, or Privateers, as they preferred to call themselves, were a surprisingly “civil society,” (if you are willing to overlook robbery, mayhem and murder).
Their line of work was hazardous by today’s standards. Industrial injuries for the pirate included the frequent loss of a limb due to sword play or a musket shot turned gangrenous, requiring sword play of the medical sort. Besides the loss of life or limbs, eyes were occasionally lost in battle as well.
But the average Pirate was well cared for. The Pirates established the first workers’ compensation system. There was an agreed upon payment for all manner of “industrial injury.” The going Pirate base pay at that time was approximately two pieces of gold per week. The loss of an eye provided you with a year’s wage, a left arm got you five years, and a right arm six years of wages, according to Piratesinfo.com
Not only were Pirates given compensation for their lost earning capacity, they were given “light duty” on the Pirate ship. Injured Pirates were presumably excused from one-arm sword fights and instead spent time below decks loading the cannon.
Not only did the Pirates invent workers’ compensation, they ran a roughly democratic institution. The captain was usually elected by the crew. However, re-elections were actively discouraged.
Before you give too much credit to the better nature of Pirates, you should remember that close quarter musket, cannon and sword fighting was a very dangerous occupation. The assurance you would be cared for was the only way the crew would agree to fight.
Who says there is no honor among thieves!
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.