ISO 45001 and controversial transnational private regulation for occupational health and safety

Publication Date01 Sep 2020
Copyright © The authors 2020
Journal compilation © International Labour Organization 2020
*Department of Management, University of the Basque Country UPV-EHU, email: iheras@ (corresponding author). **Department of Management, Université Laval, email: Olivier. ***Department of Financial Economics I, University of the Basque Country
UPV-EHU, email: The authors are very grateful to the Managing Editor of
the International Labour Review, Dr Tzehainesh Teklè, and to three anonymous reviewers for their
insightful comments and suggestions, and to the ILR Editorial Team for their work on the revision
and translation of this article. The research for this article was funded by the Basque Autonomous
Government (Research Group GIC 15/176), the Canada Research Chair on the Internalization of Sus-
tainable Development and Organizational Responsibility and the project METASTANDARDS, funded
by the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, the Spanish State Research Agency
(AEI) and co-nanced by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) of the European Union
(project reference PGC2018-098723 -B-I00).
Responsibility for opinions expressed in signed articles rests solely with their authors, and
publication does not constitute an endorsement by the ILO.
International Labour Review, Vol. 159 (2020), No. 3
ISO 45001 and controversial
transnational private regulation
for occupational health
and safety
and Ander IBARLOZA***
Abstract. This article analyses the genesis of the ISO 45001 standard on occupa-
tional health and safety, a new initiative of transnational private regulation. The
authors draw a picture of controversy from interviews with stakeholders involved
in its design, approval and initial dissemination, and from a qualitative content
analysis of the internal documentation of the committee responsible for its ap-
proval. Like its predecessors relating to environmental management – ISO 14001 –
and corporate social responsibility – ISO 26000 – this new standard raises serious
concerns among stakeholders given that it deals with substantive political, social
and legal issues.
Keywords: transnational private regulation, production of standards,
management system standards, meta-standards, occupational health and safety,
ISO 45001.
1. Introduction
International certiable voluntary management standards – also referred to
as meta-standards – are an important part of the rules and norms governing
the global economy (Christmann and Taylor, 2001; Nadvi and Wältring, 2004 ;
International Labour Review
O’Rourke, 2006 ; Darnall and Sides, 2008 ; Delmas and Montiel, 2008). Meta-
standards, or management system standards (Christmann and Taylor, 2006;
Corbett and Yeung, 2008), are developed by international private bodies, such
as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and are designed
to formalize, systematize and legitimize a diverse set of managerial activities
or tasks (Boiral and Heras-Saizarbitoria, 2015). They cover a wide range of
areas, from quality management (e.g. ISO 9001), environmental management
(e.g. ISO 14001) and corporate social responsibility (e.g. ISO 26 000) to the preven-
tion of occupational hazards and the provision of health and safety regulations
in the workplace (e.g. ISO 4500 1, OHSAS 18001). These standards all follow a
similar methodology in terms of their creation, structure, implementation pro-
cess and third-party monitoring or auditing.
Meta-standards, as a prominent example of a general trend towards greater
standardization, represent a growing form of coordination and hybrid govern-
ance in transnational private regulation. In other words, they provide a new
alternative to traditional public regulation (Brunsson and Jacobsson, 2000 ;
Abbott and Snidal, 2001; Mendel, 2 001). They are referred to as hybrid forms of
governance because they combine dierent rationales and mix public and pri-
vate partnerships (Bernstein and Cashore, 2007 ). For example, these standards
are negotiated in forums where private actors play a dominant role – although
States also participate (Roht-Arriaza, 1997) – given that private bodies, such as
ISO, have strong links to national governments (Heires, 2008). As Baek (2 017)
points out, meta-standards are tools that result from a shift in the regulatory
process, from traditional regulation (i.e. command and control strategies based
on rules and regulations enforced by the State) towards a new regulatory pro-
cess (i.e. social control strategies). This phenomenon is also linked to the emer-
gence of the “audit society” (Power, 1997 and 2003) with verication rituals and
a trend toward control, rationality and social legitimacy. The production of meta-
standards has deep social and political implications, but these are sidestepped
in many specialist or “technical” approaches (see section 2.1). As emphasized by
Timmermans and Epstein, “[a]lthough standards are often formally (or legally)
negotiated outcomes, they also have a way of sinking below the level of social
visibility, eventually becoming part of the taken-for-granted technical and moral
infrastructure of modern life” (2010, p. 71). In other words, from a social con-
structivist perspective (Bijker, Hugues and Pinch, 1989), organizational technolo-
gies such as meta-standards are socially constructed.
There is a lack of rigorous academic research on these types of specic
meta-standards, with very few case studies analysing the development of new
standards. Moreover, this line of research faces two main problems. First, most
analyses that investigate these hybrid governance and self-regulation systems do
not examine the tools themselves. There is a tendency to analyse the standards
without describing and understanding them in detail, treating them as organ-
izational technologies that function as “black boxes” (Latour, 1987) and ignoring
their inner workings. Fundamental issues, such as the main characteristics, ob-
jectives and real implications of the meta-standards, are not addressed. Second,
most studies focusing on the analysis of new standards or on their development
are carried out within the paradigm of standardization. This paradigm focuses
on “technical” issues highlighted by certain stakeholders, such as the promoters
of these standards and certication bodies, who have an obvious conict of in-

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