How might we reduce the injury and fatality rate of one of America's most dangerous jobs?


Being a sanitation worker is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. From research and conversations with sanitation workers, we found that a key reason for the high fatality rate was that the workers had become numb to the traffic hazards on the job. To help them stay alert on the job, we devised a smart glove that vibrates to warn workers of oncoming vehicles.

This project won the Student Design Challenge at the Interaction16 conference in Helsinki in March 2016.


8 weeks

  • User research
  • Strategic innovation
  • UX design
  • Physical computing

Led the design process, conducting ethnographic research, interviews, strategy brainstorms, and prototyping the smart glove.


Eunsong Lee


The Problem

Sanitation workers are getting hit and hurt/killed by cars.

When was the last time you thought about the sanitation workers in your neighborhood? Even though sanitation workers play such a key role in our daily lives, helping us keep our environments clean, the well-being of the men and women (but mostly men) who pick up after us is not something that crosses our mind.

  DSNY workers on the streets of New York. (Credit: Todd Maisel/New York Daily News)

DSNY workers on the streets of New York. (Credit: Todd Maisel/New York Daily News)

Being a sanitation worker puts you among the top ten most dangerous jobs in America. These workers are four times more likely to die on the job compared to firefighters and security guards. The main reason? Traffic accidents.

"I was just talking about how in the past week two people got hit and almost hit by a car, because everybody else needs to get around the truck. Everybody needs to go where they need to go and they don’t think about it at all. We’re a nuisance, we’re in their way, they’re in a rush, get out of my way, pull over, they yell, they honk."

— Sanitation worker Will Walsh being interviewed

Sanitation workers are so deeply immersed in their dangerous work environment, that they become numb to the hazards that whiz past them every day. They have been trained, and they know that the roads are dangerous, but being out there everyday makes it easy for them to drop their guards.

Even more heartbreaking than the fatality statistics are the recent stories of lives lost in the line of duty. In the past ten years, there have been numerous incidents of worker injury or fatality in New York alone. Two often quoted stories have been the loss of Steven Frosch and Frank Justich, two well-liked members of the force.

You can see another approach I took to address this problem in the Road Safety Map I built.

The Process

I read everything I could, and talked to everyone I could find, about the life of a waste collector.

Given the general unglamorous nature of the industry, it was difficult to find good literature. The best resource I found was Picking Up by Robin Nagle, a NYU professor who used to work as a sanitation worker, and the city’s go-to expert on the Department of Sanitation (DSNY).

We then moved onto qualitative research. We interviewed several sanitation workers and a former district supervisor. I sought out Professor Nagle, and spoke to her about what she thought the key issues were. I also tailed sanitation workers early in the mornings, observing as they went about their work.

DSNY Oral Histories

Sanitation workers are very difficult to interview, because the department often restricts access to their workers. We found a valuable alternative in the excellent DSNY Oral History Archives.We were able to draw upon 5 more first-hand accounts.

Armed with the quantitative data from research reports, as well as the qualitative insights from the interviews, we mapped out the key stakeholders in the industry. We also synthesized all our key insights into the root causes of the high fatality rates.

For us to design a solution that sanitation workers actually wanted to use, it was important to us to know our user well. We went through several empathy mapping exercises to ensure we felt confident that we were familiar with our target personas.

Empathy mapping the sanitation worker.

We also made a list of key design principles that our final design had to adhere to for maximum success.

The Design

WristGuard is a smart glove that alerts sanitation workers in real time about oncoming vehicles.

The glove is paired with a tracking system in the sanitation truck that monitors oncoming traffic and communicates with the glove wirelessly.

Song and I pulled together the 4-minute video below as part of our submission to the Student Design Challenge for the Interaction16 conference. In it, we describe the problem we're trying to solve, as well as outline our solution. We also discuss our motivations for submitting to the competition (which is a brief part of the video but just as enjoyable!)

The Glove Concept

WristGuard is a smart glove. Every sanitation worker wears gloves everyday to protect themselves from the trash and the weather, so WristGuard demands no new behavior. Each glove will come with an embedded vibration motor that buzzes early when cars are approaching.

The Tracking System

The vibration in the glove is triggered by the wireless Bluetooth connection each glove has with a tracking system within the garbage truck. Within the truck, the driver has an in-truck tracking system on a screen. It shows where the other workers are in relation to the truck, and shows oncoming vehicles. It also allows the driver to quickly alert his partner on the ground, or to communicate with his supervisor at the garage.

Welcome Screen

A welcome screen greets the workers when the truck starts up, with the system automatically sensing the owners of the gloves are in the vicinity.

Real-Time Map

When the team starts working, the in-truck system shows the truck with the vehicles detected in the vicinity. It also shows the workers' locations on the ground.

Communication Within the Team

By tapping the "Alert" button to the right, the driver in the truck can ping his buddy on the ground to alert him on top of the initial automated vibration warning.