The History of Workers’ Compensation in Pennsylvania

July 6, 2023
Stern & Cohen
The History of Workers' Compensation in Pennsylvania - Gavel with Book - Stern & Cohen Pennsylvania Workers Compensation Lawyers

At the beginning of the 20th century, employees did not have workers’ compensation in the state of Pennsylvania. During that era, an employee’s only legal recourse to being injured at work was to establish negligence through torts law, which proved far more challenging in practice than in theory. Legal proceedings of the time were often stacked in favor of the employers, who could avoid liability in most circumstances.

An Issue Emerges for PA Workers

One issue was that an employee could not win their case if they were in any way at fault for the accident. An even more egregious issue was that the employee also could not win if a fellow employee was at fault for the accident. A saving grace for employees did exist in that these cases used to be heard in front of juries. The juries of the time were often very pro-labor and would often award the employees large settlements when they were able. This created an unpredictable situation where employers were seldom held accountable; however, when the rare instances of liability did occur, the consequences inflicted a significant impact.

An Answer is Found in Pennsylvania

This all changed in 1915, when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania passed the Workers’ Compensation Act of 1915. The Act established a compromise wherein employers would assume liability regardless of fault, but in exchange, they would receive immunity from tort liability. Now, a worker would be protected so long as:

  • They were an employee
  • The injury arose in the course of employment
  • The injury and any disability are causally connected to work

The Act also set forth what a worker could recover, typically two-thirds of lost weekly wages and medical expenses. Additionally, it created a dispute resolution system that was administered by the Department of Labor & Industry and presided over by workers’ compensation judges. This benefited employers by removing unpredictable juries and benefitted employees by creating a specialized system to hear their claims.


Different Answers for Different Times

Since its inception, time has changed the Act through various court decisions and additional pieces of legislation.

In 1937, the Occupational Disease Act of 1937 updated the Act to allow protections for occupational diseases such as black lung. Today, there are over 35 occupational diseases covered by the Act.

Protections were expanded again in 1972 when the PA legislature introduced multiple amendments to the Act. These amendments gave workers the freedom to choose their medical care, raised weekly benefit rates, restructured the dispute resolution process, and perhaps most importantly it expanded the compensable event from ‘accident’ to ‘injury.’

This last change in particular expanded liability, especially when in 1987 the PA Supreme Court defined the term ‘injury’ as any ‘adverse and hurtful change.’ Beginning in 1993, the Act began to instead be amended in ways that retracted benefits to workers.

A 1993 amendment saw the introduction of utilization reviews and fee caps to ensure that the medical expenses employers and insurance providers paid were truly necessary.

Another big change occurred in 1996, when the PA legislature amended the Act to allow compromise settlements and to allow workers to tender releases.

The impact of compromise settlements was then furthered in 2006 with the introduction of mandatory in-house mediation.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, the history of workers’ compensation in Pennsylvania reflects a transformation in the legal landscape that aimed to address the challenges faced by injured employees at the beginning of the 20th century. Prior to the Workers’ Compensation Act of 1915, the burden of proving negligence through torts law often favored employers, creating an environment where accountability was rare. However, the introduction of the Act marked a turning point by establishing a compromise that held employers liable while granting them immunity from tort liability. Subsequent amendments over the years have further refined the Act, expanding protections, addressing occupational diseases, and introducing dispute resolution mechanisms to ensure fair compensation for workers. Although the Act has undergone changes that have both expanded and retracted benefits, it remains a vital legal framework that continues to shape the landscape of workers’ rights in Pennsylvania.


If you or a loved one has been hurt at work, call Stern & Cohen at (215) 999-1443 or fill out a contact form below to get in contact with a Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Attorney.