Neil Gerrish

Jeanne Jackson DeVoe

Nov. 9, 2023

“It’s an opportunity to support new directions and a future that’s beneficial for everyone. I think it’s really a noble cause or noble endeavor really, working with the advancement of fusion research and technology and being able to provide sustainable energy for us and for the world. Having a small part in that process is very fulfilling.”

– Neil Gerrish

 

Title & Department: Head of Occupational Safety and Health Division, Environment, Safety & Health 

Year started at PPPL: 2006

As the head of PPPL’s Occupational Safety and Health Division, Neil Gerrish and his team’s mission is to keep PPPL’s 700 staff members safe, whether they’re welding components on the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U) or sitting at a desk in an office. And it’s a mission he takes seriously. 

“The advancement in sciences is noble. My personal stance on safety is that it’s a noble career, as well,” Gerrish said. “We work to provide the best service to ensure safety is continuous throughout the Laboratory and is integrated into all of the processes. It’s all about knowing that my colleagues and friends are going to go home to their loved ones.” 

Gerrish joined PPPL about 18 years ago and is one of the most senior staff members in the Environment, Safety & Health Department. The safety division has since grown to accommodate the growing number of experiments and new construction at PPPL, including the Princeton Plasma Innovation Center. 

Gerrish was promoted to head of the division in 2020. He and his team work to ensure workers’ safety on NSTX-U, PPPL’s main experiment; the Facility for Laboratory Reconnection Experiment (FLARE); and throughout the Laboratory.
 

Gerrish in uniform at Camp Adder in Al Tallil, Iraq in 2010.

Gerrish in uniform at Camp Adder in Al Tallil, Iraq in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Neil Gerrish/PPPL).

One of a growing number of veterans 

Gerrish is one of the 40 veterans on staff. PPPL’s efforts to hire veterans was recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2022 when PPPL received a Gold HIRE Vets Medallion for hiring and recruiting veterans.

Gerrish’s other career started when he was 17 years old and joined the Connecticut Army National Guard. He was the third generation in his family to do so. His grandfather Gordon Gerrish served when they still had horse-drawn artillery units in the early 1920s and his father, Walter, was a combat medic with an airborne unit in the late 1950s.
 

Four tours of duty overseas

Gerrish served four active tours of duty overseas: one in Iraq, two in Afghanistan, and one in the Sinai Desert in Northern Egypt on a training mission. In Afghanistan, he was a flight engineer, a flight engineer instructor and a platoon sergeant. He and his team maintained and flew the huge, twin engine, dual rotor Chinook helicopter, transporting both vehicles and heavy equipment and troops to battlefields. Sometimes Gerrish and the crew would “loiter” behind a mountain waiting to extract troops at night with a team of five helicopters. At other times, the helicopters were sent on missions to look for enemy targets. 

Gerrish and his crew would be on standby for weeks at a time to have the helicopters ready in minutes for operations. They flew under the most difficult of circumstances. Most of the combat operations were at night with the crew wearing night goggles with very little lighting and extreme dust. They flew at high altitudes with extremely heavy loads in a hostile environment. “We had all of those factors come into play every single day,” Gerrish recalled.

Neil Gerrish on a helicopter in Central Afghanistan in the vicinity of Kabul in 2003.

Neil Gerrish on a helicopter in Central Afghanistan in the vicinity of Kabul in 2003. (Photo courtesy of Neil Gerrish/PPPL).

Gerrish was looking for a change and saw a job for an industrial hygienist at PPPL in 2005. He had served abroad two times and was working as an industrial hygienist at a hospital in Connecticut. He was hired in 2006 and joined a three-person team. He was deployed again between 2009 to 2010 to Iraq and served his final mission to Afghanistan in 2012, returning to PPPL the following year.
 

Safety lessons from the military 

The lessons Gerrish learned in the U.S. Army have served him well in his current position.

“The military is very cognizant of safety in general because we do some extremely hazardous work, so safety in general is paramount with military operations,” Gerrish said. “Working as a team is also crucial, so I’m very team-focused, and I think this is a good opportunity here to take things that I’ve learned in the military and apply them here.” 

Gerrish has a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology from Central Connecticut State University and a master’s degree in occupational safety and health engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He has two children Austyn, 8, and Aiden, 6, and lives in Bordentown, New Jersey.
 

Describe your job:  

 “I am responsible for occupational safety and health as well as chemical safety and electrical safety here at PPPL. …One of the things I’m trying to do now is take a new approach to how safety looks here at the Laboratory and provide generalists who have knowledge in not only specific areas but all facets of safety and health to provide better coverage, better support and overall be a better resource for the groups out there.”
 

Gerrish with his children.

Gerrish with his children at a lab event in 2023. (Photo by Carol Anne Austin/ PPPL)

Three things about yourself:

  • “I have a twin brother named Ken who is a corrections officer at a federal facility in Connecticut.”
     
  • “I was a college athlete and, at one point in time, held a national ranking in swimming.”
     
  • “I love spending time with my kids, either outside hiking or visiting local parks and playgrounds, or volunteering for their field trips and supporting their schools.”
     

What do veterans bring to the workplace?

“There is a whole pool of individuals that have some really good training, experience and knowledge that come from the military, and those are my brothers and sisters in arms.”
 

What does Veterans Day mean to you? 

“I can say I’m very proud of my service. I appreciate the opportunities that I’ve been provided and I’m trying to take a lot of the benefits that I was provided and give back a little bit.”
 

What does working at PPPL mean to you?

 “It’s an opportunity to support new directions and a future that’s beneficial for everyone. I think it’s really a noble cause or noble endeavor really, working with the advancement of fusion research and technology and being able to provide sustainable energy for us and for the world. Having a small part in that process is very fulfilling.”