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Chesapeake Employers' Insurance Co. has some long-standing policyholders — 96 years, in one case.

That happens when you date to the infancy of your industry.

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The Towson-based workers' compensation insurer — a century old this year — was created by Maryland legislators as they instituted a system to help injured employees and compensate the families of those who die in workplace accidents. States across the country were doing the same in rapid succession.

Chesapeake Employers was called the State Accident Fund then, and it was a government agency. These days, it's an independent nonprofit — albeit with a board appointed by the governor.

But the mission is the same as it was in 1914, leaders say.

"We do have a role, which is to guarantee there will be coverage for businesses in the state of Maryland," said Tom Phelan, president and CEO of the insurer, which is the state's largest in workers' compensation. "I like that role. I like what we do. … Our goal is to be fair to people and make sure injured people get taken care of in the right way."

It was born amid a brewing national crisis. With the industrial revolution came new machines, new ways of working — and many new dangers.

Every year, according to a 1907 magazine expose called "Making Steel and Killing Men," at least 1,200 people at a Chicago steel plant employing 10,000 were killed or seriously injured. The Sparrows Point steel mill in Baltimore County set aside a streetcar in the early 1900s just for transporting dead employees to the morgue, according to present-day union officials.

Many accident victims and surviving relatives of killed workers received little or no money, academics say.

Maryland was an early player in reform efforts. The state passed the first workers' compensation law — a 1902 ordinance limited to coal miners — but it was later declared unconstitutional.

By 1914, other states had passed compensation laws that stuck, striking bargains that gave workers help and employers immunity from lawsuits.

The new assistance pleased David J. Lewis of Cumberland, then a member of Congress and once a coal miner.

"For 14 years, I have been working to bring about a workmen's compensation law," he said. "For 10 years, perhaps, I was considered a crank, a dreamer. But the time has come when every thoughtful person is in favor of a compensation law."

American workplaces are, on the whole, far safer now. But dangers persist.

More than 900,000 cases of work-related injuries or illnesses in 2012 required time off the job, according to the latest U.S. Department of Labor data. About 4,600 people were killed in work accidents that year.

Of the jobs Chesapeake Employers typically insures, the riskiest include window washers and roofers.

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"When somebody falls off of a roof, it's a very cataclysmic event," said Phelan, Chesapeake Employers' CEO.

Rebecca L. Smith, a workers' compensation attorney who represents claimants, appreciates that Chesapeake Employers keeps its attorneys, adjusters, nurse case managers and other key people in-house rather than outsourcing. That's good for workers seeking help, she said.

"I'm a claimant's attorney, so I have issues with them if they're not approving treatment," said Smith, with the Pikesville law firm of Warnken LLC. "But I find them to be the most reasonable insurance company."

In wide swaths of the country, the system is breaking down, said Chuck Davoli, president of the Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group, a claimants' attorney association. A mounting number of states have chipped away at worker protections, he said. In Texas, employers can simply opt out of the system altogether.

"If you get injured on the job, you have less due process and equal protection and civil process [than] you do if you got injured off the job, and that's not right," Davoli said.

Chesapeake Employers, which receives no state funding, employs about 435. Hiring is on the rise after cuts several years ago, when the housing bust gouged revenue.

A few years before that, Chesapeake Employers — then the Injured Workers' Insurance Fund — had other woes. Its CEO at the time, former Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, was indicted on federal corruption charges associated with his years as an elected official.

The Baltimore County Democrat remained in his job for more than a year afterward. The insurer's board paid him $400,000 to leave at the end of 2006.

Though Chesapeake Employers is the insurer that must take all comers in Maryland, it also competes in the marketplace. Competitors once complained about what they saw as unfair advantages.

Changes over the years, including requirements that Chesapeake Employers pay the state's insurance premium tax and abide by the same capital standards as other insurers, assuaged frustrations.

"Chesapeake in its current form is much more of a competitor on a level playing field," said Jack Andryszak, an Annapolis lawyer who represents workers' compensation insurers.

Phelan argues that Chesapeake Employers is now at a disadvantage, because it still must take businesses other insurers judge too big a risk. Other insurers also can branch out into lines beyond workers' compensation, he said, while that is all Chesapeake Employers can do.

The company has about a quarter of the market, with annual insurance premiums of about $225 million.

Its longest continuous policyholder? The town of Rising Sun. The government of the Cecil County community of about 2,800 has been a customer since Dec. 13,1917.

Mayor Bob Fisher can't speak to why his town stuck with Chesapeake Employers for every one of those years. His time in Rising Sun only dates to 1937, after all.

"But I would think they provided a satisfactory service," he said.

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Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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