A frontline worker is someone who deals directly with customers, clients, or the public at large, especially one who fulfils a role regarded as vital for the community.
In other words, frontline workers are those members of the labour force who are at the forefront of community interaction, and who's effect is felt acutely, particularly in the near term. Industries where a weakness in frontline workers are quickly experienced are in healthcare services, law enforcement, emergency services like the fire brigade, and retail workers for basic necessities.
The significance of frontline workers over other essential workers is that they face the particular challenges that are unique to people who deal directly with the public: social exhaustion, abuse, exposure to infectious agents, and more. They are also uniquely important to public morale, since they are the faces that are seen. They can be perceived either as villains or heroes as the public sentiment may sway in the face of disasters, which adds stress to their role.
One of the reasons frontline workers are critical in a complex society is because they often have highly specialised skills and talents which are not easily substituted. The most obvious cases are when the job includes substantial or unusual hazards.
Examples would be medical workers that are exposed to biological hazards, rescue workers that are at risk of physical injury, or workers that operate in otherwise harmful environments like burning buildings.
While retail workers for essential goods like food are vital frontline workers, their work does not expose them to elevated risks, which means that more people are able to immediately step into the role without requiring extensive safety training and experience.
In the early phases of the covid outbreak, where there was widespread uncertainty over the severity of the disease, we all experienced an acute clarity over the value of our medical human resources and the need to protect them. Not only was it clear that their work would expose them to infection at a much higher rate than normal, but also that healthcare workers were the ones most important to keep healthy.
It was also a time where the state of prior capital investment in equipment like PPE (personal protective equipment) was instrumental in allowing these frontline workers to fulfil their role under unusual demand pressure. What this event served to demonstrate was the importance of having protections in place for frontline workers, including layers of redundancy for when society is under the pressure of a crisis with a low time horison.
When society at large - or communities in their own microcosms - experience crises that place an elevated demand on frontline workers in certain industries, the added demand load imposes secondary risks on these worker. Besides the inherent risks of the job under ordinary circumstances, additional pressure from the public leads to high stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, and PTSD in extreme cases.
During these times, the function of existing systems of support is highly valuable. Times of crisis do not (easily) allow for the establishment of new procedures and support systems. This is why it is so important to think ahead and maintain support infrastructure to mitigate secondary risks during ordinary seasons when the need may be low or absent. You can’t install drainage infrasctructure during a flood.
What are the support systems that need to be accumulated and maintained during prosperous seasons? A non-exhaustive list includes:
Having these support systems in place is a vital form of preparation for secondary risks to frontline workers during crisis events.
We’ve had a brief look at the significance of building robust safety systems around frontline workers. We’ve also explored why this is especially crucial for frontline workers that meet the intersection of essential services, hazardous conditions, and/or where there is a high skill barrier. Finally, we considered why it is important to build up structures to deal with secondary risk factors that may only appear under crisis situations, and what a few examples of these would be. Given that frontline workers are the face of a functioning society, keeping them well protected, especially during difficult seasons, is doubly important for the morale of society at large.