PICKENS COUNTY — Sara Riggs of Clemson University watched as two students with intellectual disabilities worked in the training room of the Walgreens Distribution Center in Williamston, packing bins with consumer products ranging from applesauce to toothpaste.
Riggs, an assistant professor of industrial engineering, was at the massive facility off Interstate 85 to launch a new five-year research project that could make jobs easier for all employees, enable more people with disabilities to work, and retain them once employed.
Her research is supported by a $550,000 CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, one of the nation’s highest honors for junior faculty members.
Riggs’ research starts with figuring out how technology on workstations can adapt to workers depending on the person, context and environment. Then she plans to collaborate with Walgreens and ClemsonLIFE, a program for students with intellectual disabilities, to apply her ideas to a real-world scenario.
An example of the types of questions that Riggs plans to address can be found in the red blinking lights that helped alert the students in the training rooms to bins that were ready to be packed.
“We might find that if you’re color blind that red may not be best blinking light because you might miss that,” she said. “There may be other ways to indicate that, either adding a sound or maybe changing the color. We’ll be developing the predictive algorithms that would adapt the displays for the user instead of having one solution that fits all.”
Joe Wendover, the field inclusion manager for Walgreens, said the company decided to get involved with the Riggs research to make things easier for all of the company’s employees.
“You put it in place for someone with a disability, but it could really help everybody,” Wendover said. “We’re all about that. A happy employee is a good employee.”
The Walgreens Distribution Center in Williamston plays a central role in keeping 1,026 Walgreens stores from Washington, D.C. to Florida stocked with merchandise. Goods ranging from potato chips to lotion flow through the cavernous facility on conveyor belts.
Workers unpack the manufacturers’ boxes, send the cardboard for recycling, and pack bins for shipping to individual stores.
The Riggs research is building on a collaboration between ClemsonLIFE and Walgreens. ClemsonLIFE students are training at the distribution center and, when ready, becoming employees.
The jobs come with some of the best benefits and pay available to ClemsonLIFE students, said Joe Ryan, the Stanzione Distinguished Professor of ClemsonLIFE and the program’s director.
For Walgreens, the collaboration is part of an initiative to get more people with disabilities working in its 17 distribution facilities nationwide. Currently, 14 percent of the workers have disabilities, said Daulten Stewart, a field inclusion champion for Walgreens.
“If you compare us to other companies, that’s great,” he said. “But our goal is to be at 20 percent at the end of the year 2020. These partnerships with ClemsonLIFE and many other organizations are really going to be what helps us get to that 20 percent.”
Riggs expects the research to transform how situational awareness is measured and advance what is considered state-of-the-art in human-computer interaction. The research could help not only Walgreens employees but people who work for a broad range of companies, she said.
“Walgreens pays it forward and shares the best practices with other companies that want to hire people with disabilities,” Riggs said. “These are Fortune 500 companies that have lots of people working for them.”
The research could eventually lead to a training center on Clemson’s campus where ClemsonLIFE students would learn the skills they need, eliminating the 40-minute commute to Williamston and giving them more time with job coaches.
“When they go over to the distribution center, they’ll be highly trained workers ready for hire,” Ryan said.
Stewart said the collaboration is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense. Attendance for people with disabilities is higher, and turnover is lower, he said.
“We’re 100 percent business, and the goal of business is to generate a profit,” Stewart said. “But when you can generate a profit and also do something that’s helping so many people and changing so many lives, that’s what we’re built on.”
Cole Smith, chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering at Clemson, said Riggs’ award is richly deserved.
“Dr. Riggs is not only integrating research and education but also helping students with intellectual disabilities and furthering the department’s connection with industry,” he said. “This is a result of her creativity and hard work.”
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said the CAREER award is one of the nation’s highest awards for a junior faculty member and is considered a sign of future success.
“I congratulate Dr. Riggs on the award,” he said. “She exemplifies the role of teacher-scholar and is maximizing her impact through excellent research, education and the integration of the two.”