Celebrating the contributions U.S. workers make to the nation’s society and economy, Labor Day also highlights the need to keep workers safe on the job. Established as a federal holiday in 1894, Labor Day grew out of the 19th-century labor movement. At that time, the workforce included even small children, and the average adult worker toiled for 12 hours each day, seven days per week, often in hazardous conditions, only to earn meager wages. Thus, early celebrations of the holiday included boycotts, protests, and calls for better wages and safer working conditions.

How Have Labor Laws Evolved?

The Industrial Revolution saw substantial changes to product manufacturing in the U.S., as well as to workplace safety standards and the regulations governing employers and their employees. Congress passed the Federal Employers Liability Act in 1908, allowing workers or their families to hold employers in the U.S. liable for occupational injuries or deaths. Building on FELA and the system created in Germany in 1870, all states required qualifying employers to provide workers’ compensation coverage to workers by 1948.

Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. saw the creation of agencies, including the U.S. Department of Labor and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. These agencies serve to support, monitor, and enforce the U.S. workforce and the regulations established for their protection.

Why Focus on Workplace Safety?

Occupational injuries may have a profound effect on those who suffer them, as well as on their employers. Those working in nearly every industry and profession face some type of injury risk on the job, from minor cuts and bruises to more serious broken bones or trauma. As many as 5,250 workers died on the job in 2018, and many more suffered serious injuries. According to the National Safety Council, fatal and nonfatal occupational injuries cost $170.8 billion in that same year.

Workers lost 70 million days of work due to work-related injuries in 2018. For many who find themselves unable to work after an on-the-job accident, the concerns they face extend beyond their physical and emotional pain and suffering. Off work entirely or placed in another role, injured workers may find themselves earning substantially less and struggling to meet their financial obligations and provide for their families. Through the state’s workers’ compensation program, however, they may receive partial wage replacement and coverage of their work-related medical expenses, which may offer much-needed relief.