Monday, June 15, 2015

Deir El-Medina

San Marino
The legend is that modern workers' compensation is about 100 years old, and we know that for purposes of our history the model was derived from social programs in old Prussia (now Germany) under Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck.

But there is evidence that worker social programs existed long before our sense of recorded history, dating back to the times of Ancient Egypt - long before the birth of Christ.

An article in the latest issue of Archaeology Magazine discusses evidence from Deir El-Medina, a village that once existed across the Nile River from Thebes, that suggests the workers there, who were employed to build and decorate tombs for Pharaohs and other Egyptian elite, were not only valued employees, but enjoyed rather liberal work injury benefits.

According to archaeologists, based on human remains and written records on things such as pottery, "the town's workers were treated as valued employees, with regular food rations, access to treatment by a physician, and the right to skip work due to illness."

Archaeologist Anne Austin says that there was nothing magnanimous about these accommodations - rather the bosses made, "a calculated decision so these workers were able to continue their work on the tombs."

Scorpion stings, eye problems and hangovers were some of the maladies accommodated.

And while there were high incidences of arthritis in ankles and knees, along with high levels of infectious disease, their overall health appears to have been good.

Indeed, according to the article, much better than those constructing the pyramids at Giza, who had much higher incidences of trauma, likely due to the large stones they transported.

Eventually the economy took a toll on the town - as the decline of the burial business started and the workers apparently engaged in the first recorded labor strike. But after the fall of the New Kingdom in 1069 BC Deir El-Medina was abandoned.

When I was riding motorcycles in Italy with my son a few weeks ago, stopping to visit various historical sites, I wondered how the people that constructed these beautiful, elaborate basilicas and towers were compensated. These structures were the Bentleys and mansions of the lords and dukes of the time providing bragging rights to the owners.

For instance, on the top of a near vertical precipice stands the castles of San Marino, with commanding views of the valley to the west and the Adriatic Sea to the east. The engineering feat is easy to appreciate, but what about the labor conditions and the treatment of the workers that got those stones up the mountain?

To this day we continue to argue about work conditions and the employer's duties to provide a safe environment and liability in the event of injury, illness or death.

Just last week the Texas Supreme Court denied Randy Austin's premises liability claim against this employer, but said he could still pursue a claim against his employer for failing to provide him with a safe workplace, even though he was plainly aware of the dangerous condition that caused him harm when his employer sent him to remedy a dangerous condition on its property. Austin's employer was a non-subscriber.

And the court also upheld the lower court's ruling in Seabright Insurance Co. v. Lopez, where the employer was held liable for death benefits to Lopez' family who was killed driving to a job site from temporary housing that his employer provided in a vehicle that his employer had also provided.

The tension between employer and employee has a long, long history. What is remarkable in my mind is how much remains the same despite thousands of years of "evolution" and "reform."

Which of course leads to the ultimate conclusion - in general we fail to learn from history and are destined to repeat those errors.

Or, another way to look at it - your job in the worker safety/compensation/resources profession is likely very safe.

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