Division of Archives and Records Service

Looking back on the Labor Commission

Rae Gifford
August 1, 2017

Guest post by Archives and Records Service volunteer Dani Newton.  

I came to volunteer at the Utah State Archives and Records Service through a class I took this semester at Salt Lake Community College. We were required to spend a few hours every week at an archives and help with any projects.  I also had to pick my own research project and write a paper. I was not entirely sure what to expect when I started since it is pretty easy to get overwhelmed when you walk into the permanent repository, or even just listen to staff members list all of the ongoing projects as they try to figure out which one most needs an extra set of hands. I was assigned to process the Industrial Commission reports, which mostly focused on people who had been injured in mining accidents in Utah. Around the same time, while doing personal family research, I found documentation of some of my ancestors who had been killed in mining accidents, including my 2nd great-grandfather’s obituary, which listed a wife and six children still living. I began to wonder what happened in such situations. Did the company offer any kind of compensation to the family? Did the state or federal government? What about injuries? Were workers given any help or compensation? That is where the Industrial Commission comes in.

In 1916, the State Legislature allowed Governor William Spry to create a commission to investigate industrial accidents in Utah and the liability of the employers associated with the accidents. He was also to draft a tentative bill to create a permanent Commission to oversee industries and labor in Utah that would then be presented at the following session of the legislature. Governor Spry appointed the following men to his commission: Senator Don B. Colton of Vernal, Ira Browning of Castle Dale, Charles H. Pearson of Ogden, and R.C. Gemmell, H.B. Windsor, and H.K. Russell of Salt Lake City. These men were mostly from northern Utah while the rest of the state had little to no representation. According to a newspaper article published on July 2, 1916, the men of the commission also drew inspiration from other states that had passed similar bills around this time, such as Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia[1]. West Virginia was in a particularly bad situation because the state had funded it’s worker’s compensation. The state was bankrupted by over half a million dollars due to an overflow of claims from two large-scale mine accidents.

From January to March 1917, the debate over the bill was split between two factions. The majority, led by Senator Culbert L. Olson, believed that the new commission should have full control over the compensation funds.The minority, lead by Senator George H. Dern, argued that it would be more beneficial for the industries to go through regular insurance companies. Eventually, the minority’s version of the bill passed with the provision that any compensation should provide for 55 percent of an employee’s average weekly wage, not to exceed more than six years or $4,500 for temporary disability. The provision for individuals with a permanent, total disability included a payment of 55 percent of average weekly wage for five years after injury, then 40 percent of the average weekly wage until death.

July 1, 1917 was the official deadline for every company to have picked their insurance carrier and have their workman’s compensation setup. From then on, workers injured on the job or family members of workers killed during employment could apply to the commission for benefits.

Form C-7: First Report of Injury for Arvid Larson, Box 1, Folder 2, Utah State Archives and Records Service, Series 1005.

After an injury, the employer was required to file a claim that started with an injury report such as the one shown below. Each report had to include a variety of information such as the employer’s name, nature of the business, date of the injury, the worker’s nationality, if the injury occurred above or below ground, a description of the accident, and whether or not any unsafe conditions contributed to the accident. A surgeon’s report was also filed with each claim, giving a more detailed record of the injury and the injured worker’s level of disability, including whether it was a temporary or permanent injury, and any treatment going forward.

The Industrial Commission’s own published report states that the commission’s work contributed greatly to helping Utah’s economy by enforcing safety regulations, holding hearings for injured workers or their family members to claim benefits, and mediating disagreements between employers and employees.

“The experience we have had, since the Commission was installed, has convinced us beyond all question of doubt that strikes and lockouts are things that can be prevented if both the employer and the employee make an honest effort to get together. The result of our mediation during the past year, when several grave situations have been met with trouble, indicate the we have been the means of saving the State thousands of dollars and more serious loss through persuasion and conciliation, thus preventing imminent strikes and lockouts.” [2]

With the United States entering World War I in the same year, so much changed in the economy both throughout the country as a whole and in each state. It is difficult to say with certainty how much of an impact this individual bill had in Utah. One thing the Industrial Commission did provide, without a doubt, was an official channel through which working class families could seek financial support when a family member was injured or killed while working. As for my own ancestors, I have yet to find any evidence that their families received compensation after the accidents, though I am still holding out hope that further research will prove otherwise.


[1]”Workmen’s Compensation Bill is Being Shaped by Commission,” Salt Lake Telegram, July 02, 1916.

[2] Utah Secretary of State. Public documents serial set, 1896-1956. Report of the Industrial Commission of Utah Period July 1, 1917-June 30, 1918. Utah State Archives and Records Service. Series 240.

Other References

“Compensation Bill Passes after a Hot Debate.” Ogden Standard, March 07, 1917.

“Workmen’s Compensation Act Unanimously Passed by the Legislature.” Ogden Standard, May 26, 1917.

Utah Industrial Commission. Utah Industrial Commission Reports. Utah State Archives and Records Service. Series 1005.

Dani Newton is a volunteer at the Utah Division of State Archives and Records Service. Dani received her BA in history from Westminster College. She has continued her education at Salt Lake Community College and hopes one day to work full-time in an archives or museum. She is also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and works with both the Golden Spike Chapter and Utah State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. 
As an intern, Dani completed several projects regarding the Labor Commission records. Her commitment to that project and others has continued after her internship was complete. Her volunteer efforts have provided more accessible records for researchers.