The Regulation of Mines Act 1874 (which came into force in 1879) provided compensation for workplace injury and death. This had to be sought from the owner and was contingent upon proof of negligence.
The Employers’ Liability Act 1882 gave workers in a wider range of industries the right to claim compensation from employers whose negligence had contributed to an injury. Workers still had no automatic right to compensation for injury, and sometimes had to sue their employers to prove negligence. These cases were expensive and often unsuccessful.
The Factories Act 1891 set up the first system for inspecting factories and enforcing safety regulations.
Mining accident levy
In the notoriously hazardous mining industry, the government charged employers a levy from 1891 to fund the compensation of injured miners. Workers also set up their own life insurance schemes through trade unions. These funds were not large enough to provide adequate compensation because of the large number of accidents and occasional disasters. An explosion in the Brunner mine in 1896 killed 65 miners, leaving more than 200 women and children without an income. The families sued the mine owners, but after a long legal battle they received only a small payout. The community was left impoverished and divided.
Workers’ compensation, 20th century
In 1900 the Workers’ Compensation for Accidents Act introduced a ‘no-fault’ principle. Compensation for industrial accidents no longer depended on proving an employer had been negligent. The act provided injured workers with weekly benefits, and compensated the families of those killed at work. Employers were encouraged to take out insurance to cover themselves against payouts under the act. However the benefits paid were small and lasted for a maximum of six years.
During the first half of the 20th century workers and their dependants continued to struggle to receive adequate compensation for injury or death at work. The watersiders’ union president, ‘Big Jim’ Roberts, told his members that if they lost thier lives, the stevedoring contractors and shipowners would go to court to try to deprive their dependants of compensation.
The welfare state
Following the creation of the welfare state in the 1930s, the state came to be seen as the logical provider for compensation and rehabilitation. From 1947 it was compulsory for employers to take out insurance against workplace injuries. Three years later a Workers’ Compensation Board was set up to insure workers whose employers failed to provide sufficient coverage, and to promote accident prevention. This board was funded by levies collected from accident insurers and some employers.