In view of the fact that the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN is offering a gold medal annually for the best device for the protection of life and limb, it will be understood how thoroughly in sympathy we are with that portion of the President's message in which he recommends the adoption of legislation providing for the compensation for accidents to workmen. That the question is far-reaching and of sufficient magnitude to call for immediate action, is shown by a glance at the statistics of accidents published by various commissions and boards that take cognizance of this matter. Thus, the Public Utilities Commission lately drew attention to the fact that during twenty-six days in August of the present year, 5,500 accidents occurred on the surface roads of New York city alonewhich is at the rate of 211 a day, or 77,000 a year. The Department of Health of this city reports that during 1906 there were 3,781 fatal accidents in New York equivalent to an average of ten a day. That the fearful frequency of these accidents is not confined to New York alone, is shown by the figures of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which reports that in the year ending June 30, 1906, there were 108,324 railway accidents in the United States; an increase of 12,613 over the number which occurred in 1905, in which year the railroads of this country furnished more accidents than all the casualties on both sides during the three years of the Boer war. The total number of accidents in the United States of all kinds, chiefly industrial, in a single year exceeds half a million. Now, seeing that a large proportion of the deaths and injuries is due directly to the risks incurred by workmen employed in our industries, and that as matters now stand the law affords little or no protection to the workman, who in the majority of cases must endure the results of injury without compensation, it can be seen what a vast injustice is laid upon our industrial workers under existing conditions. It is true that a body of attorneys has come into existence which, in the President's words, exist "only by inciting men who may or may not have been in the wrong to undertake suits for negligence"; but it is a fact that such suits usually "secure only inadequate compensation, and often cause altogether disproportionate annoyance to the employer." The President advocates the passing of a law providing limited but definite compensation for accidents to all workmen within the scope of the Federal power, including employees of navy yards and arsenals. The law should be so framed that the payment for accidents by the employer would be automatic, instead of being a matter for lawsuits; workmen receiving certain and definite compensation for all accidents in industry, irrespective of negligence. The spirit of such legislation would be based upon the principle that the employer is the agent of the public, and that when he starts any industry, he does so on his own responsibility and for his own profit. He sets in motion agencies which create risks for others, and he should, therefore, take all the ordinary and extraordinary risks involved; and the risk he thus at the moment assumes will ultimately be assumed, as it ought to be, by the general public. By the enactment of such a law, the shock of the accident will be diffused, and will not, as it now does, fall upon the man or woman who is least able to bear it. The benefit would be twofold, since employers would gain a desirable certainty of obligation, and would get rid of the present necessity of litigation to determine that obligation, while the workman and his family would be relieved from the too-often crushing load of disablement or death. It is a fact, unfortunate but undeniable, that in legislation designed to safeguard the life and limb of the individual citizens, we generally are lagging behind the rest of the industrial world. Since the year 1895 practically every country of Europe, together with Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, British Columbia, and the Cape of Good Hope, has enacted legislation embodying the principle that upon the employer should be placed the entire trade risk in the various lines of industry. Considerations of humanity and of national prestige should lead Congress to take early and effective action to bring our practice at least up to the standard established by the rest of the world.
This article was originally published with the title "The President on Employers' Liability" in Scientific American 97, 25, 454 (December 1907)