An Integrated Approach to Workplace Safety and Wellness: Case Studies of Warehouse Communication System Design

Heekyoung Jung
University of Cincinnati


Workplace safety is closely related to staff’s wellness, but they have been mostly approached as separate initiatives due to organizational conventions and operational constraints. Thanks to the rising awareness of health and wellness as well as advanced technology capabilities, corporate attempts are increasing for creating a safer work environment by monitoring employees’ physical and emotional conditions in relation to potential workplace hazards. This paper will present an integrated design approach to workplace safety and wellness based on the case studies of communication system design projects that explored digitally augmented warehouse work environments. The projects were carried out in an interdisciplinary design studio course in the school of design at University of Cincinnati with 16 enrolled students from industrial, communication and fashion design programs across 15 weeks. Students collaboratively conducted trend research about emerging technology and social issues, secondary research focusing on warehouse work conditions and safety regulations, and primary research by visiting a warehouse and interviewing managers and staff. Based on the research insights, possible scenarios for enhanced lift-truck driving experience were explored to satisfy the warehouse staff’s demands for staying informed, connected and supported. The paper will showcase conceptual communication system scenarios in the warehouse environment and speculate on how individual operators could be empowered by augmented information sharing and display, leading to positive impacts on safety as a result. In the end, design implications for integrated safety and wellness promotion will be discussed to leverage the communication and experience potential of digitally augmented work environment.

1. Introduction

Warehouse is a complex work environment where physical materials are received, documented, stored and delivered within and out of a company. Warehouse staff are exposed to dynamic and potentially dangerous work conditions that require constant attention to human and material traffics as well as expertise to operate heavy lifting equipment. Especially, lift truck operators, although they may feel confident about driving equipment once the work becomes their daily routine, still need to pay careful attention to keep their work environment safe. A careless mistake or too much confidence could lead to a fatal warehouse accident. It has been reported that many warehouse accidents are caused by operator’s carelessness or underestimation of potential dangers, and that drivers could avoid fatal human injuries or material damages by simply complying to basic safety regulations (Motorola, Inc., 2013). The studio project presented in this paper was motivated to increase lift truck operators’ attention to safety and to improve their work experience in warehouse.

Traditionally lift truck industry has been mostly concerned with hardware performance of lifting equipment and ergonomics to increase operators’ work efficiency. However, recently with growing interest in human wellness in various personal and public areas of our society, warehouse safety requires different approaches beyond safety regulations or risk management strategies. In addition, nowadays we are observing huge leaps in capabilities of advanced technologies including big data, automation, and wearable tracking, which can be used cooperatively to collect data about personal condition and work environment. It has become more common to consider workplace safety in the continuum of personal health and wellness instead of as a separate goal to achieve with safety policy and regulation (Ozer, 2013; Rath and Harter, 2010). There have been many attempts to identify key factors of workplace safety and wellness in relation to fundamental human needs from an integrated perspective (Putman, 2015). And design explorations are further encouraged to imagine possible system scenarios by connecting various experiential factors and leveraging environmental and cultural prompts to enhance employees’ work experience. In particular, it is critical to devise a program that could support individual engagement by raising awareness about safety and wellness conditions, providing positive reinforcement for behavioral changes, and sustaining intrinsic motivations based on employees’ participation instead of imposing top-down safety regulations and monitoring their compliance to them (Figure 1; Putnam, 2015).

Figure 1. Diagrams redrawn from Putnam (2015) to illustrate an integrated perspective toward fundamental human needs, workplace wellness and safety and to identify key factors to explore workplace wellness programs: Imagine What’s Possible Pyramid (page 31) and Maslow Meets Mallory Culture Audit (page 72).

In consideration of emerging technological capabilities and increasing demands for physical and emotional wellness at work, this project aims at exploring design interventions for improving warehouse safety from an integrated perspective. In particular, we focus on engaging and empowering employees in nurturing a corporate safety and wellness culture through workplace systems. The project presented in the paper was carried out as a junior level interdisciplinary design studio in the school of design at University of Cincinnati.

2. Methodology and Design Process

Sixteen students from different design programs—Industrial, Interaction, Graphic and Fashion Design—worked in four teams over sixteen weeks. The studio followed the double diamond process that was developed by the Design Council in 2005. The process consists of four stages by mapping the divergent and convergent thinking modes that designers use: discovery (identifying needs and inspirations), definition (interpreting these needs to business objectives), development (forming design-led solutions through iterative revisions and tests) and delivery (finalizing resulting product or service).

2-1. Discovery: trend survey + literature review + primary research

The first phase is to understand the problem by conceptualizing the meaning of safe and smart lift truck experience based on initial research. Questioning about “how to make a lift truck experience safer and smarter?”, students investigated warehouse work conditions and lift truck drivers’ responsibilities from secondary sources, while in parallel surveying creative inspirations from emerging sociocultural and technological issues before delving into primary user research through interview and contextual inquiry. Each team developed their initial design strategy based on the keywords emerged from their trend research: connected work experience by location-based information sharing; personalized workspace in a lift truck; seamless integration of physical and virtual dimensions of the work environment; intelligent use of technology for engaging work experience. These initial strategies set out from the trend research served as a shared vision for the communication within each team. Students also conducted primary research by visiting a warehouse, observing the real work context, and interviewing lift truck operators and other warehouse staff. Mind mapping method was employed to summarize research findings and corresponding conceptual design spaces (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Mind maps for conceptualizing warehouse safety and operator empowerment

2-2. Definition: synthesis of insights + initial sketches and scenarios

The second phase is to define design requirements based on the problems and opportunities identified in the previous phase. Initial solution scenarios were explored and quickly simulated in forms of idea sketches and storyboards. Proposed solutions range from new dashboard and display interfaces to wearable and embedded tracking devices. Simple photographic sketches, which graphically overlay the conceptual interfaces on real photographic images of the warehouse environment (Greenberg et al., 2011), were efficient to simulate pervasive technological interventions and to receive constructive feedback from weekly critique sessions (Figure 3). Through iterative ideations and critiques, concrete design requirements and scopes of design interventions were defined by prioritizing problems and possible approaches to them.   

Figure 3. Photographic sketches for simulating initial ideas

2-3. Development: specification of system components

The development phase is to translate the initial concepts into feasible systems with multiple touch points that consist of physical, interactive, and informational design components. Emerging information and interaction technologies—from embodied and embedded tracking to big data and automation—were applied to develop conceptual scenarios in consideration of their experiential value propositions. It was challenging to demonstrate the systemic, experience-oriented concepts because their forms are not contained by a single, static device but involved with various intangible dimensions of work conditions and interaction flows. Planning how to best communicate systemic and experiential design concepts was another design decision by itself besides resolving the defined problems. Students were encouraged to come up with their own format to best illustrate the intended user experience and related value propositions of their concepts (e.g., system diagram, interactive prototyping, video demonstration). They spent much more time in planning out scenarios by highlighting all significant problematic situations and sequencing them in a temporal order like making a movie (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Initial ideation for use case scenarios in storyboard

2-4. Delivery: final demonstration + documentation

The final phase is mostly about documenting the design proposals and the process work. Each team documented the inventory of their initial concepts, final design goals and statement revised based on their design explorations. The final solutions of each team were documented with the following components: system overview (interaction flows and/or information architecture), design theme (style and/or interaction guidelines), form explorations (hardware and interface sketches), and final experience scenarios.

3. Design Considerations for Warehouse Safety

Below are four main considerations for designing safe lift truck experience defined based on our primary and secondary research. In addition to the research about general warehouse accidents and safety regulations, we investigated lift truck operators’ training programs, responsibilities, social dynamics in their workplace, and personal aspirations. In this course, the meaning of safety was reconstructed in terms of proactive self-protection and emotional support for building a safety culture beyond passive prevention of accidents or monitoring driving behaviors for penalties. Below is the list of design considerations prioritized based on our research:

3-1. Pedestrian visibility: Visibility is a continuing issue for lift truck drivers. It is important for pedestrians to make themselves stand out in a warehouse environment. A pedestrian can never assume that a driver can see him or her. Currently, drivers are instructed to use eye contact and check before crossing aisle and honk their horn to alert others of their presence. Pedestrians have the option of wearing high visibility vests, but this is not a requirement in all warehouses. Pedestrians cross walks and lanes presently exist in warehouses, but in order for them to be effective they need to be well maintained and designated.

3-2. Warnings and notifications: In busy and loud warehouse environment, both lift truck drivers and pedestrians can be easily distracted, losing their focus on significant tasks or important notifications. Appropriate warnings may substantially reduce the probability that the regulator loses control of the situation altogether. Warnings are useful in situations where a regulator or leader needs to maintain control. However, if a regulator or leader continuously responds harshly to those whom violate the rules or conditions, the effect of the rule or condition is weakened, adding more stress to lift truck operators.

3-3. Learning and training: Surprisingly there are many lift truck drivers who operate trucks without taking training sessions due to practical reasons including time and cost. It is more problematic that they do not get proper feedback about their driving behaviors until an accident happens. Research has shown the importance of positive feedback in the practice of expert tutoring (Knippen and Green, 1997; Lu and Roto, 2015). Positive feedback can relieve learner’s uncertainty towards a task, thus allowing them to make corrections within the process. The effect of positive reinforcement in learning and changing behaviors has been critically considered during our concept exploration with three questions: What did the operator do correctly? What is the outcome of the incorrect action? How can the operator correct his or her action and avoid an unsafe situation?

3-4. Motivation and empowerment: Most importantly warehouse safety is largely dependent on individual drivers’ intrinsic motivation to comply with safety regulations and professional work ethics. Driving lift truck could be easily considered as a temporary job with a relatively low professional barrier as well as insufficient payment. Personal empowerment is critical for drivers to stay focused at work and to keep their environment safe. Instead of a regulator or manager monitoring their performance, fundamental programs to sustain their motivation need to be devised by challenging them in constructive ways and rewarding their performance.

The four considerations listed above highlight different aspects of warehouse safety both at individual and organizational levels, but they are closely related with each other, influencing drivers’ performance and safety habits. Based on these considerations, each of the four student teams explored conceptual scenarios with different design strategies, which will be describe in the next section:

1. Connect drivers through augmented reality interfaces by geo-tagging safety information;

2. Build a sense of community in a warehouse through a mentoring and supporting system;

3. Attach a user more effectively to his truck and use the truck as a platform for learning and training;

4. Enhance interactions in the operator workflow through ambient intelligent notifications.

4. Conceptual System Scenarios

In exploring different scenarios, we commonly focused on the bond between a driver and his lift truck as a basis to specify design components, specifically by leveraging its potential in tracking the driver’s behaviors, enhancing his workflows with minimal distraction, providing real-time safety feedback to change his behaviors, protecting him in dangerous situations, and connecting to other operators to share useful information. In what follows, four concept scenarios are presented to showcase different technological interventions and their corresponding value propositions based on the aforementioned design considerations.

Scenario 1: augmented reality for geo tagging safety information

The design goal of this scenario is to create a set of augmented reality interfaces for keeping drivers alert and interested in their work. The scenario aims to archive and share useful information throughout the warehouse by leveraging augmented reality technology with its simplified user interfaces and display flexibility. In the proposed solution, the current vehicle dashboard is removed in favor of an entirely projectable system. Simple projections are seamlessly blended into the warehouse environment, reducing the need for multiple screens as well as distractions and allowing information to be seen where it is needed (Figure 5). In particular, the idea of geo-tagging is applied to improve warehouse communication and find a more efficient and proactive way of reporting and measuring safety metrics. When there is an accident, spill or pothole, or if someone has a question or pro-tip, an icon can be dropped at the location of the event, hazard, or question. If a pothole is repeatedly reported, superiors will be able to see that information and fix the pothole or make sure that drivers who run over it are not docked for collisions. This readily available knowledge shared and updated in real time will contribute to creating a smarter and safer work environment.

Figure 5. Augmented reality for tagging and sharing safety information (Student team: Kerri Morabito, Minkyu Song,Ryan Bahm, and Taylor Spencer)

Scenario 2: mentoring and supporting system

The main focus of this scenario is a mentoring system through which novice operators can learn driving tips from experienced ones. The scenario envisions how a personalized truck and incentive program for rewarding mentoring effort could support individual drivers. The proposed system consists of three interface components: a wrist band (that carries the driver’s data and syncs up with his truck to allow more reliable driver identification); a truck (whose main light is color coded to indicate the driver’s expertise and status to those around him); and a safety vest (that lights up to increase visibility within the warehouse). The light on the truck corresponds to the lighting of the vest (Figure 6). In case of an emergency, the light will begin to blink red to alert others of a safety hazard. The safety vest lights up to increase visibility within the warehouse. The final system focuses on the relationship between a mentor and a mentee, and how that system can then reinforce teamwork and safety within the whole warehouse community. The mentoring system is supported by positive reinforcement through a parallel achievement system. Drivers can gain points from safe driving, volunteer work, and communication with their mentor/mentee. These points can be exchanged for rewards such as a day off or free lunch. The ultimate goal of this proposed scenario is to build a sense of community and support network in the warehouse through tangible incentives, thus to support and protect each other from potentially dangerous situations.

Figure 6. Mentoring and supporting system with color coded truck and vest indicating operator’s safety status and expertise: yellow for notice, green for expert, red for emergency (Student team: Eunsol Byun, Jensin Wallace, Paul Harris, and Tobias Dreifke)

Scenario 3: In-truck training system

This scenario focuses on the intimate connection between an operator and his truck as an effective learning and training platform (Figure 7). The main touch point of the proposed system will be a tablet attached to a truck, which consists of three modes: in-truck training (that offers an unobtrusive interactive learning experience, complete with light-up indicators, step-by-step illustrated instructions, and positive feedback); custom tutorials (that allows operators to show off their proficiencies; if an operator does something particularly well, he or she is offered the opportunity to participate in the creation of a tutorial); and personal profile (that gives operators the gift of credibility, recording credentials such as truck safety records, work experience, training history, and tutorial creation). If an operator makes an error, his truck provides a safety pulse, a warning message to alert and give a chance to correct the error. If the operator does something particularly well, the truck can sense his or her level of expertise and will prompt the operator to participate in the creation of a tutorial by using cameras attached to his truck. The driver and the truck develop their performance together and also protect each other in emergent situations. A long-term vision of this scenario is to archive the operator’s performance as his personal profile, which could certify his expertise as well as safety work ethics for future warehouse job application.   

Figure 7. In truck training system for exchanging driving tips and a display wall for sharing community news (Student team: Bennett Nestok, Dane Mayson, Lei Xin, Necia Disse, and Soojin Kim)

Scenario 4: ambient lighting system for safety alert

The objective of this scenario is an intelligent enhancement of interactions in the operator workflow by minimizing distractions with a pervasive lighting system. The focus lies on communicating important information to the driver through the use of multiple senses in unison. The system consists of four display components: the LED ring surrounding a driver’s seating area; the transparent screen projection for the dashboard; the exterior lighting indicator on the top of a truck; and graphic signals projected on the ground from a truck. Colors of the LED ring are designed to easily communicate four types of notifications consistently: red for danger, yellow for warning, blue for neutral alert, and green for positive feedback (Figure 8). When operator driving into the intersection, the exterior indicator will signal directions to surrounding lift trucks and passers-by to raise their awareness. Arc is projected on the ground to indicate an approach from around corner. The use of simple geometric shapes and lines was selected to ultimately communicate to the truck operators both on the truck screen as well as in the projected signals on the ground. Turning different surfaces into convenient screens and projecting necessary information in the direction wherever the drivers are looking can further reduce the drivers’ mental stress of having to constantly check screens for incoming information.

Figure 8. Pervasive lighting system for multi-sensory communication with other drivers and pedestrians (Student team: Chenxi Sun, Christopher Wells, Chunhui Xie, and Jingyao Xu)

5. Reflection

In this project we explored conceptual scenarios for safer warehouse work experience through smart technological interventions by employing different research and ideation methods. A broad range of conceptual scenarios was proposed from a simple, low-tech system of color-coded trucks and vests to a futuristic one for ambient lighting communication. The proposed systems do not involve novel technology invention nor feasible implementation, but the contribution of this project lies on contextualizing emerging (and currently feasible) information and interaction technologies in lift truck work experience and re-framing warehouse safety into the dimension of emotional support through intelligent systems. In particular, environmental and cultural prompts were actively explored through design approaches to develop an organizational program for sustaining operators’ intrinsic motivation. This front-end design ideation of workplace systems and crafted visualization of their use cases enabled constructive discussions between the students and the stakeholders throughout the project. Receiving positive feedback from warehouse staff and managers, we believe that our framing of the core problem of warehouse safety—operators’ motivation and empowerment in their workplace—and our exploratory design approach for it have broader implications for integrated safety and wellness programs in other workplaces, especially by leveraging environmental and cultural prompts rather than imposing administrative regulations (Figure 9). At the same time, we also learned pedagogical lessons that could inform the curriculum of system-oriented design studios with key learning objectives and methods that are distinct from those of product-focused design studios. In what follows, we reflect on these implications.

Figure 9. Reflecting on value propositions and design implications of proposed system scenarios

5-1. Exploratory Approaches to Workplace System Design

Information and interaction technology pervades every aspect of human life, quantifying our personal, social, and professional experiences into data that can be archived and shared as meaningful information. With the current speed of advancements in the technology sector now is an exciting time to push forward into new and unexplored areas in industry. Information systems at workplaces have mostly concerned with monitoring employees’ performance or compliance to regulations or automating repeated, labor-intensive tasks (NY Daily News, 2013). These approaches might be efficient in some aspects, but hard to influence employees’ intrinsic motivations and empowerment, which we found more critical factors in this project. We believe that design approaches could bring in more human values to organizational information systems by promoting employees’ emotional health and self-development (Schulte et al., 2015). At the same time, the application of social network to build a sense of community in workplace was repeatedly proposed across the four student teams in our studio project. This illustrates that the technology-mediated social connection is pervasive in millennials’ tendency to be constantly connected and actively exchange useful information (American Press Institute, 2015; Apple, 2011). It is expected that such technology mediated communities will enable operators to get to know their fellow operators and grow useful relationships not only for their work but for friendship as well. Especially when combined with personal data tracking technology, its influence would become more significant by facilitating social connections based on personal behaviors and interests. Considering the millennials as a new generation of employees, investments in individuals and their emotional wellness are becoming a major priority and under explored frontier. Big companies are taking a new interest in their employees stressing engagement and satisfaction in the workplace. Our proposed scenarios envisioned some of these human-centered approaches to workplace system design (Kaasinen et al., 2015) in contrast to technology-oriented approaches.

5-2. Graphic Design Issues with Emerging Technology

Amongst this roaring interaction and display technology simplicity is taking center stage on just about all fronts. With intelligently enhanced interactions in the operator workflow and connectivity at workplace, we expect to increase safety by enabling drivers exclusively focus on the most meaningful tasks while the system prioritizing and layering different pieces of information. Here the mastery of basic design principles cannot be emphasized more in achieving the simplicity of user interaction with complex systems. Color is utilized as one of the simplest but strongest visual communicators in various forms of system components in proposed scenarios including a vest, graphic/lighting alerts, or projected signage. It is always important to follow the standard meanings of colors (i.e., red for danger, yellow for warning, blue for neutral alert, and green for positive feedback), while reinforcing their meanings across multiple touch points of a system is left for creative ideation. It is important to note that a same message can be more efficiently conveyed when combined with multi-sensory media to create a more compelling communication. In addition, harsh lighting or overwhelming sensory notifications in these distracting industrial environments can have negative effects on a person’s mood and by adjusting their levels the visibility of pedestrian and operator status could be increased in addition to making the operator feel more immersed in the ambient communications.

5-3. Pedagogical Issues for System Design

Although information system design has matured in technology and engineering disciplines, there is not enough pedagogical resource in design education to guide through an exploratory ideation process that reflects emerging technological opportunities beside analytical user-centered approaches (Stickdorn and Schneider, 2012). And we believe that sharing various exploratory design cases will have a meaningful contribution to enriching human-centered system design approaches. The combination of top-down lifestyle as well as technology trend forecasting and bottom-up user-centered research worked out successfully in exploring innovative, still grounded design interventions. We also experienced challenges in defining required design components of system-oriented forms and visualizing conceptual scenarios of new systems that involve multiple touch points of user interactions and rich experiential values. By experimenting with various means of visual communications, we have learned that realistic photographic sketches are effective for discussing initial scenarios than drawn sketches focusing on specific product forms, while static system overviews that list all interaction flows and design components (as in Figure 8 and 9) are more time-efficient for delivering the final scope and structure of a system than video demos, although this may be different in other projects.

Another issue to underscore is that information system design requires domain specific knowledge for professional tasks. We spent much time at the beginning in understanding main tasks of lift truck operators, their workflows, and organizational issues in warehouses (Monk and Howard,1998). The learning curve was steep, but through the conversations with truck operators and warehouse managers we could discover some problematic issues as well as opportunities, which might have not been noticed by those who are already in the system. We consider the communication of this discovery to be more important than final solutions in this front-end system design project. This implies that the role of designers is evolving in this field from making final forms of artifacts to communicating current status of design problems and envisioned scenarios, which could inform and inspire stakeholders to initiate innovative changes. We hope that our detailed report of the project process and reflection could be useful resource for other system design projects and studios.


We thank all the students who contributed to this project, and study participants who provided valuable insights about their warehouse work experience.  


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