Today, we’re sitting down with Dennis Bonin, our Director of Safety at Perlo, to learn about his path into the safety side of construction. As an employee of more than 8 1/2 years, Dennis started as a Firefighter before unexpectedly landing in the world of construction safety. Thanks to his dedication and leadership, Perlo has expanded our safety program, and he has revitalized the image of construction safety in, and outside of the field.
Dennis will be retiring from Perlo in June of this year. We cannot understate how much we appreciate his time with our company, and while we are happy to see him moving on to the next chapter in his life, he will certainly be missed.
Read on to learn more about our Safety Superhero, Dennis Bonin.
What is your soon to be ending role?
I’m the Director of Safety for Perlo Construction, which means I oversee our corporate safe work practices and policies, including compliance with federal, state, and local rules and regulations related to safety in our office and on our jobsites. I manage our dedicated safety professionals who are a committed resource for our construction supervisors and crews. I coordinate and deliver safety-related training with an emphasis on making it relevant to our employees, both in the office and on the jobsites. I’m also responsible for incident/injury investigations.
How did you get into safety?
I was in the fire service as a battalion chief. My life took a turn, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I had a good friend from the fire service that had retired early from an injury and that was the safety manager for Ness & Campbell crane. He told me I should look into safety management and that I’d like it. I hesitated at first, and it took him three calls to encourage me to look into it before I did! At that time, I applied for a job with Hoffman Construction and went to work at Intel in 2010 as a Site Safety Coordinator. I worked there under some really great mentors and worked on that project for about 3 years. Then I had the opportunity to work with Dynalectric as their Site Safety Manager out at Intel.
Once the Intel project finished up, I took a new position here. It was my supervisor from Hoffman that actually recommended me to come work here. I was ready to move into more of a leadership role and this opportunity seemed to be perfect for that, as Perlo didn’t have a full-time safety manager at the time.
I was hired at Perlo in 2014 as Perlo’s Safety Manager, and now it’s been a little over 8 years.
What have you seen change in your time managing safety programs, in general?
Certainly, industry-wide there is a greater emphasis on construction safety in recent years. Not only from a total worker health perspective, but as a demand from clients to improve. There’s also more emphasis placed on organizations to have better safety scores (lower EMR, total recordable incident rates, etc). This is being driven by public and private clients, as well as insurance companies.
There’s also been a greater emphasis on credentials for safety professionals; for instance, CHST (Construction Health Safety Technician) is basically a minimum requirement now, replacing the once minimum qualifications of OSHA 10 and OSHA 30. For a lot of employers, ASP (Associated Safety Professional) and CSP (Certified Safety Professional) are desired. The CSP is basically the highest-ranking certification for safety out there. There’s a lot more emphasis from our clients as well on having safety professionals be credentialled at the higher levels.
Perlo has all of our Field Safety Coordinators working on obtaining their CHST.
What have you seen change with Perlo’s safety program in your time here?
A lot! To begin with, it was pretty informal prior to my role beginning. One individual took care of the administrative aspects of safety for Perlo, so we had a safety manual and the basic reports covered. Our lead field superintendent managed the field component for investigations and compliance, but there wasn’t an audit system at all. When I was hired, we had about 20 superintendents and now we have 45+. So, our workforce has grown substantially. And our safety team went from just me to now having 6 safety professionals. As far as other changes, there’s more formality now with compliance. For example, we have a safety management software that helps us audit and track safety scores and training records, including our incident/injury reports, etc.
When I got here, there was a safety incentive program, but it has since been expanded extensively. We used to give out just high-viz men’s shirts as awards, but now we have tons of swag, and even do lunches for 100% safety audit scores. All of our foremen, superintendents, project engineers, project managers, and executive team members are OSHA-30 certified as well. Safety overview audits are now being done by all project engineers, managers and executive teams on a monthly basis. All of this has basically led to more accountability for safety both in the field and in the office.
Safety training has also greatly improved overall. We have a much bigger awareness and understanding as a company about how important it is. We also created a safety committee in the last few years to make sure we have involvement from a wide variety of field members.
What are you most proud of with regards to your career in safety?
The relationships that I’ve built with our employees. They see the Safety Department more as a resource and not just as the ‘bad cop’ for safety-related topics. I have a lot of discussions with employees that are outside of work topics. It’s cool to be a resource and mentor that’s available no matter what the concern or crisis is. For me, that’s really rewarding, and I try to instill in our safety coordinators that you need to build those relationships first, then you can use those to help motivate workers to enact safe work practices.
Why do you think it’s so hard for people to think about working safely?
I think construction in general is a “Type A” industry, and there is still a taboo associated with working safely. People still want to be ‘tough’. There’s also a huge emphasis on production over safety. I’m really proud that our culture is changing in that regard, but the industry still has a lot of people that value production over safety and don’t realize that you can still prioritize both. The reality is that you can still have a productive jobsite that is also safe. A safe, clean site leads to efficient production, less off-work time, higher morale, etc.
You want people to appreciate what they’re working for, and it’s not necessarily what they have at work, but it’s what they have at home.
How do you try to motivate people to work safely?
You want people to appreciate what they’re working for, and it’s not necessarily what they have at work, but it’s what they have at home. So, I use that to help motivate others. If I know people have children, hobbies, or whatever motivates them at home– it’s important for you to work safely so you can enjoy what you do outside of work, too. So, whether it’s a hobby or family, stay safe to continue doing things that bring you joy when you’re not here at work. That’s what I want people to understand.
When I first started with Perlo, I put myself in the position to be a part of the crew. I’ve done some actual labor on a tilt, for instance, and the field crews appreciated that I was willing to do the hard work, but it also helped me understand their work. It also gave me the opportunity to ask people how we could do these tasks more safely. They were much more willing to talk to me about these things after that.
What challenges do you see for our industry with regards to safe work practices?
Definitely, tighter project budgets. It makes it hard for people to prioritize safety when cost is a huge driver. Also, increasing regulations from the federal and state governments. For example, there are new heat related policies that require work to stop in certain conditions. The government has to take action because accidents and deaths have occurred from these, and Federal OSHA has to paint with a broad brush. So, regulations are getting tighter and tighter, and this isn’t a bad thing, but it is a challenge. We now have to look at full personal health, so noise exposure, chemical exposure, wildfire smoke, silica, etc. We now have to take action at much lower thresholds than before, and this does affect production, for sure. Suppose your options are to stop work or put everyone in a respirator during wildfires. In that case, the work is going to slow down significantly.
The other real challenge is that today’s workers coming into the workforce have much less exposure to physical labor than in past generations. You don’t necessarily have people that have worked in a rural environment with their hands. Instead, they’re used to being indoors on gaming systems or things like that. Then they’re entering a very physically demanding job without the knowledge and stamina built-up from the get-go.
I tell people at orientation that construction is hard work. If you aren’t tired and sore at the end of the day, you’re probably not working hard enough. Sore muscles aren’t an injury, and you need to know the difference. And people can build up that stamina, but it’s going to take a while. Technology is great, but we have so much of it now that people are generally less prepared to enter a labor-intensive trade like construction.
What is the biggest ‘lesson learned’ you’ve had in your career?
I don’t know if it’s a lesson, but it’s a reality that you never can know everything about construction safety. It’s always evolving, especially as a General Contractor; we work with so many subcontractors that have new practices we can learn from. There are always new processes, policies, and practices. You can never know it all. It changes all the time.
What advice would you give to people thinking about safety as a career?
Be patient. Be consistent. Manage the risk, not the policy. Policies are black and white, but risk is not. So, I say think about the risk and manage the risk. I tell superintendents that all the time. I have found this to be a very rewarding career – it’s neat to be a resource for the majority of our team members. We developed good long term relationships, so that you’re accepted as a resource and not a threat. It’s fun to see someone I brought through orientation as an apprentice that’s grown into a superintendent role. It’s neat to see.
You have to care about people both in and out of work, or you won’t be successful in this role. It’s not sustainable to just be a big hammer all the time. Because then if you visit the jobsite, all work stops. I want to be a resource, not a rule enforcer. I think there’s a stereotype that safety professionals have to be big enforcers, but you have to seek first to understand. Ask questions and understand why someone is working the way they are before demanding change. You have to respect their efforts, get to the root of the problem, and then suggest changes that help them be safe.
What will you miss most about your work here?
The people, most definitely. Those relationships.
What are you looking forward to in retirement?
I’m really looking forward to having more time freedom. I think it will be nice to also not have to carry two phones and be worried about what phone call you might get. Safety is 24/7 job, and I’ve always looked at it as my responsibility to be available when the phone rings. I do get those calls during off hours or weekends, and that can wear on you. You can’t really step away entirely, and that’s a lot of my own ‘fault’ because I’m passionate about what I do and hold myself accountable to be available.
What do you want to share as parting words with us?
I look back at my time here with Perlo, and it’s a really special workplace. There is such an investment made to keep workers connected and truly make our workplace a fun place to be, which is engaging and social. Yes, we work hard, but there are a lot of rewards for doing that. To have an organization that makes so much effort to make people feel welcome and be social so that they’re heard and have an opportunity to participate both in and outside of work activities. That’s really what makes Perlo special–and I’m going to miss it.
We want to thank Dennis for taking the time to not only share his work and experience at Perlo, but to reflect on the faithful 8 ½ years of service that he has dedicated much of his time to. Dennis will be retiring in June, and his leadership and legacy will very much be missed.
If you’re interested in a career in construction, take a look at our Careers page for more information!