Mike Bonkalski, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s (PPPL) new head of Environment, Safety, and Health (ES&H), brings almost 30 years of experience at two national laboratories to the position that oversees health and safety at a crucial time for the Laboratory as it begins several major projects.
Bonkalski begins his new position in the midst of the curtailment of operations at PPPL during the coronavirus pandemic. Bonkalski is communicating remotely from 829 miles away in Geneva, Illinois, with his staff of 48 people in New Jersey.
Bonkalski said his focus as head of ES&H will be on finding ways to support PPPL’s scientific mission of research to develop fusion energy as an affordable, clean and sustainable form of generating electricity. “We’re there to support the people who do the research, so they can do world-class science and make discoveries,” he said. “To foster that while keeping them safe – that’s the goal.”
He will move into a position held for 12 years by Jerry Levine, who has been at PPPL for more than four decades first as a consultant with Ebasco and then as a PPPL employee for 33 years. Levine is stepping down to act as an advisor to the Directorate. “Jerry has done a wonderful job leading providing steady guidance and leadership of ES&H for so many years,” said Craig Ferguson, deputy director for operations. “We are grateful that he will continue to provide his wisdom and experience.”
“Mike brings a wealth of ES&H and operations experience to PPPL from other national labs,” Ferguson said. “This combination helps Mike find workable solutions and get to “yes” to enable safe execution of our mission. That was an important message for me to hear from Mike as we looked for the next ES&H head. We have a lot to do with the NSTX-U ( National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade) recovery, FLARE (the Facility for Laboratory Reconnection Experiment), science experiments, construction projects and operations and so on and I look forward to Mike’s leadership as we move forward.”
While Bonkalski admits that starting the new job working from home in another state is “not ideal,” he said, “It’s an exciting time at the Lab despite the curtailment.” He visited PPPL in the fall as part of a construction review for Princeton University and he said he liked what he saw. He is looking forward to leading the department as PPPL begins several new projects, including plans for a new building, the Princeton Plasma Innovation Center; FLARE, and completion of the NSTX-U Recovery Project. “There are lots of new things coming, a lot of great projects. There’s just a vibe of people excited for the future and the changes coming,” he said.
As head of ES&H, Bonkalski heads a department with 48 employees, including the Site Protection, Environmental Services, Safety, and Health Physics.
While starting the position during the curtailment has its challenges, Bonkalski has experience and knowledge about how national laboratories are responding to the coronavirus. He was in charge of Fermilab’s recovery planning and continues to lead a planning group of national laboratories that is sharing best practices during curtailed operations and planning for resumption of operations. Bonkalski has jumped in to these activities at PPPL: attending daily meetings of PPPL’s Emergency Operations Center, which oversees the day-to-day response to the coronavirus at PPPL; and joining a committee led by Doug Ports, performance assurance and contract management manager, that is formulating plans to resume on-site operations.
Bonkalski grew up just a few miles from Argonne National Laboratory in the Chicago suburbs of Bolingbrook, Illinois. Even before he graduated from Illinois State University in 1992 with a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental health, he had begun working as an intern at Argonne, later becoming an industrial hygienist monitoring environmental impacts of the Laboratory. He received a Master’s of Public Health in environmental and occupational health and safety degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1996.
In 1998, Bonkalski moved to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory where he worked on the industrial hygiene program for the Fermilab Accelerator Division. Those early years helped him see things from the perspective of those doing hands-on safety that has been useful through his career, Bonkalski said.
Championed safety program to reduce injuries
As senior safety officer of the Facilities Engineering Service Section and Workforce Development and Resources Section, Bonkalski championed a safety program to reduce human errors that could cause injuries called the Human Performance Improvement Program. He was safety and health manager of the Occupational Safety, Construction Safety, Industrial Hygiene and Medical Groups in the ESH&Q Section and became deputy chief safety officer in 2017. In that position, he helped reorganize the ESH&Q section and helped develop a five-year strategic plan.
The new ES&H head said he is not a micromanager but he firmly believes in continuous improvement. He is looking at ways to improve the division as PPPL begins large construction projects for the first time in several decades. “I think it’s important to strategically plan where you want to be as an organization and how that looks and how you’re going to get there,” he said. “My door is always open, I like to talk to people, I like to solve problems. I’m a problem solver.”
He and his family are looking forward to moving to New Jersey – the first time in his life he will live outside his home state. He and his wife of 20 years, Georgine Bosak, have two daughters: Beatrix, 13, and Charlie, 10. They also have a house full of animals with four rescue dogs, three cats, three lizards, an aquatic turtle, a mouse and a chinchilla.
The family enjoys hiking and they’re looking forward to being near New York and Philadelphia. Bonkalski also enjoys surfing and working on old BMW and Porsche cars.