When I started researching Laramie newspapers between 1868-1922 that are available online, I was often struck by headlines about local on-the-job injuries.
The Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) probably had the major share of employee deaths and injuries in the first 90 years of Laramie’s existence—it was the largest employer and much of the work was dangerous. However, UPRR injuries were rarely reported in the local papers unless death occurred.
Worker injuries in Laramie’s four plaster mills were often reported; teamsters and freighters with their horse-drawn wagons were victims of kicks and overturned vehicles that could cause serious injury if not death. Loggers and agricultural workers dealt with hazards all the time, just as they do today.
Assumption of riskNewspaper reporters in the late 1800s often speculated on what the worker might have done wrong; it was an automatic assumption that the blame for accidents lay with the worker, not the employer.
There were “assumption of risk” contracts whereby a prospective employee had to agree that he was aware of job hazards, and if injured, could not sue and was not entitled to compensation. We have no way of knowing how common they were in Laramie before 1915. People still sign waivers for recreational activities (maybe workers too?), indicating that they know the hazards and assume the risks, absolving the companies.
In the early days, employers didn’t have to provide safety features for workers. Until electric lights became common in Laramie after 1886, workplaces were dark, sooty from the coal burning furnaces and accumulated grime. We’ll never know how many injuries occurred because an employee couldn’t see well enough in the gloom to avoid injury.
When a wage earner got hurt on the job, it meant extreme hardship for families. Until 1915, there were no damages that injured Wyoming workers could collect. There might be a little settlement from the company he worked for, if he were lucky. But usually the only way to get compensation for an injury or accidental death was for him or his heirs to sue the company.
Note that the male “he” is used here intentionally. It was ludicrous to think that a woman might be employed in any kind of hazardous job prior to the 1940s.
Accidents happenIn Laramie, boiler explosions took the lives of more than 15 UPRR employees in the rolling mills from three separate incidents before 1911. The number of severe burns is unreported.
In 1901 the UPRR made an effort to curtail the number of deaths by instituting “quick response” training for its workers nationwide so they could come to the aid of an injured co-worker, hailed as a “most commendable undertaking on the part of the UPRR, humane in its every inception,” by the Laramie Boomerang.
In 1912 the UPRR prepared an “accident map” showing the number of accidents affecting employees, passengers and trespassers on their route. The Boomerang reported, “The traveling public can see that for every nine accidents in 1903 there is but a single one in 1912.” Data may have been skewed to fit the desired outcome, but there might have been real progress.
Some injuries happened when clothing got caught in the belts of pulleys driving machinery, dragging a worker to peril. A falling ladder at a Laramie plaster mill launched a worker into a kettle of 400 degree boiling gypsum—he didn’t survive.
Fraternal insurance societiesConsidering Laramie’s worker injury and death statistics, its no surprise activists agitated for some way to compensate workers. Several fraternal societies began to provide some benefits to workers. One of the first was the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, which started during the Civil War, in 1863, with fraternal and beneficial goals.
The Ancient Order of United Workmen (founded in 1869) was both a fraternal organization with religious overtones and an insurance cooperative. Members paid $1 to join, and if a member died, $2,000 was paid as a death benefit to survivors, and another $1 assessment of all members replenished the fund.
That these societies were active in Laramie is evidenced by reports of young Laramie UPRR switchman, William Harron who had prudently joined two such societies. He was crushed to death on March 30, 1893 in a horrible accident that occurred when his foot was caught in the rails and he was dragged underneath moving cars. The two societies he belonged to, claimed the newspaper, were the Ancient Order and the “switchmen’s society” that would pay $1,000 in the case of accidental death. Perhaps his parents in Cozad, Nebraska collected the $3,000 reportedly due for the loss of their son.
In 1891, fireman Joseph Hartley died in a gruesome UPRR accident on August 30, 1891; his mother Mary Hartley of Laramie placed a classified ad in the Laramie Republican Oct. 13, 1891 thanking the Odd Fellows’ Fraternal Accident Association of American for the prompt payment of $1,250.00 upon her son’s death.
That wasn’t the end of the Hartley case. His father filed a $10,000 lawsuit against the UPRR for wrongful death, the railroad fought it through the courts and, in 1894 the U.S. Supreme Court was to hear the case, which by that time had become a $25,000 lawsuit. LPM local history buff, Jerry Hansen, says it was after 1900 when the case was settled for $10,000.
Unions emergeBy 1900 there were at least a dozen labor unions in Laramie, most having headquarters in the old “Woodmen of the World” hall located where the post office is now on 5th St. There was a large meeting/dance hall in the building, and smaller rooms for union headquarters. Most unions were for various specific categories of railroad workers, but there were also unions for timber workers, machinists and a central labor union to coordinate them.
Unions generally didn’t provide death benefits, though many did provide health, retirement and injury assistance. The main union focus was to improve wages and limit working hours. Unions were also concerned about safety and outlawing children in the workplace, and provided opportunities for socialization, including suppers and dances.
Death benefits gradually fell to private insurance companies founded in colonial times to provide fire insurance and/or firefighting benefits. In 1913, Laramie had three agents offering life insurance, one offering accident/casualty insurance and 18 offering fire insurance. That soon changed as life insurance gained importance with young married men.
Regulations beginAgainst this background, reforms emerged all across the US. In 1913, the State of California had an “Industrial Accident Commission” which reported 36,462 accidents, including 823 deaths and 161 suits filed against employers. The Los Angeles Herald in Feb. of 1914 reported that the commission had prepared a schedule for rating permanent disabilities. This isn’t far from the first known compensation schedule for injured workers, etched in stone in ancient Sumeria—it lists precise payments for injuries to specific body parts.
Otto von Bismark, though not known as a great humanitarian, is credited with establishing the “first modern system of workers’ compensation” in Prussia in 1884, according to a North Carolina physician, Gregory P. Guyton, writing in a 1999 issue of the Iowa Orthopaedic Journal. Bismark’s goal, according to Dr. Guyton, was to motivate workers and relieve courts of burdensome lawsuits from injured workers such as those that California noted in 1913. In fact, it was relief from these lawsuits that motivated employers to support workers’ compensation laws.
In 1908, the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) was enacted. Declared unconstitutional in 1906, it was rewritten in 1908 and apparently still stands. Initially it covered only injured railroad workers and railroad companies involved in interstate commerce so long as the worker could prove that the railroad was at least a little at fault. In addition to compensation, most workers could (and still can) sue for damages. “Extremely controversial” and “interpreted many thousands of times” by courts, the damages awarded by FELA tend to exceed those of current state workmans’ compensation laws, says one legal resource organization “HG.org” in an online post dated 2020.
In 1911,Wisconsin passed one of the first state workmans’ compensation laws, according to Dr. Guyton. His survey of these laws sympathizes with orthopaedists whose reimbursement depends on them. “The modern system of workers’ compensation is so complex and arcane it produces considerable grief to those who must deal with it on a daily basis,” he writes. “Yet these often cumbersome regulations are so ultimately vital to society they appear, in one form or another, in all industrialized nations.”
The problem is that except for FELA, most of the workmans’ compensation laws in the U.S. are enacted by the states, and they are all different. There is some federal involvement in addition to FELA, such as the relatively recent Occupational Health and Safety Administration, established in 1971, but FELA is the federal law directing compensation schemes, but you have to be a railroader.
Lawsuits frustratingQuick settlements are goals for most state programs. An injured worker cannot wait for years to receive payment for treatment, nor can the doctor who treats him. The frustrations are shown by Carl Westman’s case. He was injured in 1909 when shoveling coal at a Laramie factory. A chute opened, dumping a load of coal on him causing injuries. His only recourse was to sue his employer, Acme Cement and Plaster Co. of Laramie for $25,000 claiming personal injuries. The company won, Westman appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial.
In the second trial Westman won and was awarded $11,000 in damages. The company then appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court. The court once again ordered a new trial—so three years later, after being plaintiff or defendant in three court cases, Westman in March of 1912 was back exactly where he started except out expenses paid to doctors, lawyers and court fees. Two months after that 1912 decision, Westman settled out of court with the Baltimore insurance company that Acme retained. The settlement amount was undisclosed.
Wyoming establishes workers’ benefitsIt took two years to roll it out, but Wyoming established relief for injured workers in 1915. The 1913 Wyoming Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment authorizing the establishment of a Workmans’ Compensation Act. Voters adopted it in 1914, and the 1915 Wyoming Legislature designed the Act, hailed as “very important” at the time, by T.A. Larson in his 1978 book “History of Wyoming (2nd Edition).” But Larson also notes that the initial Act was not very generous in its schedule of payments, which authorized a lump sum of $1,000 for a total disability.
The Wyoming law only covered workers in “extra hazardous” professions; the courts over time have determined just exactly what that means. Even at the start, railroads were exempted because its workers were already covered by FELA. Ranchers in the Wyoming Legislature threatened to veto the entire Act if it were to cover agricultural workers, so that exemption was adopted.
Editor Chapin of the Republican newspaper “grumbled in October 1919 that the range business was much more hazardous than printing,” (covered in the 1915 Act), says Larson. Over time many other exemptions have been enacted, including domestic workers and all federal employees. The Act was administered by the State Treasurer’s Office; the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services (WDWS) took it over when that department was established in 1989.
At first, the legislature set a pool of money aside, then direct state funding ended and the pool was formed from a 2% tax on payrolls of employers with workers in hazardous jobs. Now Wyoming law requires employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance to fund worker protections.
By 1920, Dr. Guyton says, nearly all states had passed workmans’ compensation laws—the last one was Mississippi in 1948. “Although excessively intricate and burdened by separate implementation schemes for each of the 50 states, workers’ compensation law remains one of the relative success stories of American legislation,” he concludes.
WDWS functionsThe WDWS umbrella includes Vocational Rehabilitation (“Voc Rehab”), Unemployment Insurance, Workers’ Compensation, Wyoming OSHA, Employment & Training, and several more, with headquarters in Cheyenne. Every Wyoming county has at least one Voc Rehab representative, most have an Employment & Training officer as well, while mine safety and OSHA are in counties with mines.
The general thrust of the Wyoming Workers’ Compensation Act now is to “assure quick and efficient delivery of indemnity and medical benefits to injured and disabled workers at reasonable cost to employers” (language taken from a 1997 Wyoming U.S. District Court case). Wyoming’s laws include things that most other states have, in that the employee gives up the right to sue employers upon receiving benefits, coverage is required from employers whose jobs are covered by state regulations, and medical and indemnity [insurance] payments are provided, though subject to cost containment measures.
So the bottom line is—it may be complicated, with “grief” to doctors and support for specialized lawyers—but the system we have now is a huge improvement over nothing, as in the first 50 years of industrial work in Laramie.
Judy Knight is collection manager at the Laramie Plains Museum.This article is archived on the website of the Albany County Historical Society, at wyoachs.com