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Farmland accounts for 47 % of the European territory and plays an important part in the economic, cultural and political life of Europe.

In 2010, farmers from across the EU 28 and their family members constituted the largest portion of the total agriculture labour force. From a total of 12.2 million farms, 96.9 % were family farms,followed by regular non-family workers and non-regular non-family labour force.[1] The largest proportion of the family labor force was in Poland (95 %), Ireland (92 %) and Malta (90 %) respectively. The highest shares of regular non-family workers were in the Czech Republic (75 %), Slovakia (69 %), France and Estonia (both 45 %), while the largest proportion of non-regular non-family labour force is found in Spain (19 %), the Netherlands (13 %) and Italy (12 %). [1]

In 2010, about five % of European workers worked in agriculture and a lot more in the food industry which depends on the agricultural sector. But it is also a hazardous industry in which many workers are killed and injured in workplace accidents, or suffer from occupationally acquired diseases. About 500 people are killed every year in farm accidents in the EU. Farm workers work with potentially dangerous machinery, vehicles, chemicals, livestock, at height or near pits and silos and are exposed to bad weather, dangerous substances, noise and dust. The risks also include family members working at the farm and children living at the farm.[2]

This article will look at typical problems in the agricultural sector, describing hazards and risks, and highlighting prevention and control measures. Forestry and fishery are subject of two separate OSHwiki articles.

Fact and Figures

In 2010, there were 12.2 million farms in the EU 28. According to Eurofound, 4.9 % of European workers worked in the agriculture sector in 2010.[3] However, it is difficult to get information on the exact number of workers in the sector. Different data sources provide figures on employment in the sector. The differences can be explained by the special characteristics of agriculture: farm workers may provide work at different times in the year (e.g. seasonal workers), work part-time or work irregularly. According to the Farm Structure Survey (FSS) about 25 million persons worked in the sector, but only 14 % of them were working on a full-time basis. A conversion of the number of farm workers into full-time equivalent jobs (annual working unit AWU) results in 9.9 million persons working full-time on farms in 2010. The agricultural labour force was the highest in Poland with 19.1 %, followed by Romania with 16.2 % and Italy with 9.6 % of the total work force. [1]

The agricultural sector in EU 28 is dominated by family farms: about 94.8 % of farmers worked alone with assistance from family in the EU 28 in 2010. Family farms with 50 % or more of the regular agricultural labour force provided by family members accounted for of 96.9 % of the total number of farms [1]

The fatal accident rate in the agriculture, forestry and fishing, for the EU 27 Member States, was 4.69 per 100 000 workers, in 2012. Although the rates for fatal accidents have declined in the last ten years, these rates are still some of the highest for any industry, with only construction and transportation having a higher rate (Table 1).

Table 1: Fatal Accidents at Work in EU 27 (in comparison with some selected sectors)

 number / incidence**number / incidence**number / incidence**number / incidence**number / incidence**
Total4,736 / 2.414,294 / 2.034,425 / 2.114,103 / 2.053,878 / 1.91
Agriculture, forestry and fishing591 / 8.31484 / 3.49575 / 4.54547 / 5.80519 / 4.64
Construction1,258 / 7.51,156 / 7.331,036 / 6.67943 / 6.8854 / 6.22
Transportation711 / 6.81586 / 5.60679 / 6.54611 / 5.98561 / 5.42
Manufacturing837 / 2.39704 / 2.07703 / 2.18676 / 2.10642 / 2.01
Human health and social work activities44 / 0.2354 / 0.2578 / 0.3751 / 0.2570 / 0.34

Source: Eurostat [4], ** cases per 100,000 workers

Table 2: Breakdown of Fatal Accidents in the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Sector (NACE code A), According to Company Size (EU 27) (number of accidents)

 TotalZero (self-employed)From 1 to 9 workersFrom 10 to 49 workersFrom 50 to 249 workersFrom 250 to 499 workers500 workers or moreUnknown

Source: Eurostat [5]

Looking at the farm size, the highest numbers of fatal accidents happened in micro-enterprises (one to nine workers) due to the high percentage of small family farms (table 2). While the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector has many fatal accidents in proportion to its employment figures, in terms of non-fatal accidents, the incident rate is similar to the incident rate of the total non-fatal accidents in EU 27 (table 3). This may not reflect the real number of non-fatal accidents. The record of occupational diseases or non-fatal accidents is poor compared to other sectors. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that there are as many as 10,000 unreported injuries in the agricultural industry each year. [2]

Table 3: Non-Fatal Accidents at Work in EU 27 (in comparison with some selected sectors)

 number / incidence**number / incidence**number / incidence**number / incidence**number / incidence**
Total3,851,98 / 1,956.023,529,946 / 1,666.373,756,266 / 1,791.473,401,167 / 1,699.623,156,456 / 1,552.54
Agriculture, forestry and fishing127,649 / 1,794.62168,869 / 1,219.13162,619 / 1,283.10164,184 / 1,742.37150,317 / 1,342.93
Construction626,313 / 3,735.24548,657 / 3,477.89533,465 / 3,434.19478,512 / 3,450.84417,838 / 3,044.45
Transportation316,328 / 3,031.56296,743 / 2,838.23330,876 / 3,187.29285,126 / 2,790.34267,969 / 2,586.38
Manufacturing939,818 / 2,688.06760,427 / 2,230.94795,343 / 2,461.59719,484 / 2,232.45670,266 / 2,094.90
Human health and social work activities293,690 / 1,552.4301,113 / 1,381.60344,772 / 1,648.49318,637 / 1,576.52304,876 / 1,473.14

Source: Eurostat [6], **Cases per 100,000 workers

Table 4: Breakdown of Non-Fatal Accidents (more than three days lost) in the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Sector (NACE code A), According to Company Size (EU 27) (number of accidents)

 TotalZero (self-employed)From 1 to 9 workersFrom 10 to 49 workersFrom 50 to 249 workersFrom 250 to 499 workers500 workers or moreUnknown

Source: Eurostat [7]

The highest numbers of non-fatal accidents can be found in micro- and small enterprises, which is related to the very large proportion of farm workers working in micro-enterprises (table 4).

Working Conditions

The agricultural sector is a significant employer of both women and men in the EU. Agriculture is the fifth highest employer of men in the EU, and the seventh highest employer of women. However, the sector is male dominated: 60 % of the workers in agriculture are men. Women often work in family farms performing numerous daily tasks. Female bosses in agriculture are rare.[3]

Based on a statistical analysis of the data from the fifth Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) 2010, six % of farm workers are self-employed with employees and 49 % are self-employed without employees, compared to an average percentage across all sectors of four % respectivelyelf 11%. Agriculture is a sector, which has a higher proportion of workers on temporary contracts (43.9 %) compared to an average of 16.7 % for all sectors and has a high proportion of employees without contracts. 12.5 % of the workers report not having a contract compared to 4.7 % in EU 28.[3]

According to Eurofound, farm workers work on average 46 hours per week compared to 38 hours in the EU 28, whereas farm workers in micro-farms work more hours per week than in small and medium sized farms.[3]Atypical working hours, such as weekends, evenings or night work, are also very common for farm workers.

Self-employment, the high percentage of temporary workers, and the fact that farming is often a family business are challenges for occupational safety and health. Self-employed workers in the agriculture industry are more often victims of fatal accidents in comparison to others industries.[8]

Work-Related Risk Factors

Agriculture is one of the most hazardous sectors. Workers in the sector work with potentially dangerous machinery, vehicles and livestock. Many accidents occur during repair and maintenance work, and animal care [1] They work at height and near pits and silos. They are exposed to bad weather conditions, noise and vibration, dust and dangerous substances. The main causes of accidents include:

  • Transport (being run over or vehicle overturns);
  • Falling from height (through fragile roofs, from trees etc.);
  • Being struck by moving or falling objects (bales, trees etc.);
  • Being trapped by something collapsing or overturning;
  • Contact with machinery
  • Livestock-related accidents and fatalities;
  • Asphyxiation / drowning
  • Contact with electricity

Working in the agriculture sector is not only physically, but also mentally demanding. Long working hours, isolation, financial uncertainty, planning difficulties, administrative demands, and the interaction between stress and exposure to multiple physical risks pose psychosocial risks for farmers.

Machinery and Vehicles

Most accidents involve farm machinery and vehicles. Getting hit, run over, or entangled in machinery can lead to death or severe injury.

The tractor is the most commonly used vehicle in farm fatalities. Many injuries are caused by being crushed by tractors and by overturning. Other severe and fatal incidents are caused by harvesters, mowers or round balers. The risk of injury comes from contact with the machine’s moving parts like blades or flails or being trapped, pulled or entangled in other parts of machines. [9]

Other hazards and risks arise from portable tools and equipment, such as saws, hammers, screwdrivers, axes and wrenches, circular saws, drills, motor winches or high-pressure cleaners. They are part of the everyday work in agriculture and can be very dangerous when they are not maintained properly, broken or defective.[8] Workers may be injured due to entanglement in moving parts, heat, explosion, being struck by metal particles and sparks.

Slips, trips and falls

Slips, trips and falls can happen anywhere on the farm. The different ground conditions on farms (muddy, slippery, uneven, with obstacles and tripping hazards) increase the risk of slip and trip hazards. According to the Health and Safety Agency, slips, trips and falls on the same level account for approximately one fifth of all reported non-fatal injuries.[9] Workers in agriculture may slip because of slippery surfaces, uneven and steep terrain, holes in ground, obstacles or poorly designed steps. They may also fall from tractors or mobile machinery when getting on or off.

Falls from heights happen from roofs, lofts, ladders, vehicles, bale stacks and are the second highest cause of death in agriculture. [10] Agricultural workers are working at heights when repairing shed roofs, inspecting silos, painting buildings or clearing guttering. [11]


Animal handling involves a large number of activities, such as feeding, cleaning out stables, birthing, herding, or slaughtering. Any work with animals (e.g. horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and others) involves some level of risk. Injuries from animals are one of the biggest causes of farm accidents. These include crushing, knocking, or kicking injuries.

Manual Handling

Workers in agriculture do a wide variety of manual handling tasks and are particularly exposed to ergonomic hazards (tiring or painful positions, carrying or moving heavy loads, standing or walking and repetitive hand or arm movements). [8]

Workers may suffer from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as back pain, neck and upper limb complaints, hand – arm vibration syndrome and osteoarthritis of the hip and knee as a result of:

  • Lifting heavy loads, and poor manual handling techniques
  • Repetitive movements
  • Exposure to vibration while driving agricultural vehicles and using equipment
  • Awkward postures while harvesting etc.
  • Or acute injuries from accidents (broken bones, muscle or tendon sprains and strains).

Table 5 lists some examples of manual handling tasks.

Table 5: Examples of Hazardous Manual Handling Tasks [12]

Repetitive forceLifting and stacking hay bales
Sustained forceCarrying feed or water buckets
High forceLifting concrete posts
Sudden forceHandling frightened or resistant animals
Repetitive movementAttaching milking cups
Sustained posturesBending over to attach milking cups in a shallow pit
Awkward posturesBending and twisting during shearing / crutching
Whole-body vibrationDriving a tractor or quad bike over rough ground
Hand-arm vibrationUsing a chainsaw or shearing handpiece

Source: [12]

Confined Spaces

The maintenance of silos, slurry tanks, bins and grain conveyors presents the usual risks associated with working in confined spaces. Access to such confined spaces is usually only possible through one access point with no alternative exit, and often with a small opening. [1]

Farmers and workers who enter a confined space may be exposed to a toxic gas or oxygen deficiency, resulting in injury or death.

In slurry tanks, the most common operations carried out are: cleaning, inspection, repair or installation of devices. In grain conveyors and bins, workers enter to remove blockages that stop the grain flow.

Noise and Vibration

Workers in agriculture are frequently exposed to loud noises from tools, machinery and animals. Repeated exposure to noise can cause permanent hearing loss and tinnitus. Agricultural workers experience one of the highest rates of hearing loss caused by loud noises on the farm. Studies have shown that farmers and farm workers may experience substantial hearing loss by the age of 30. [14]. Noise-induced hearing is the main cause for occupational diseases in regards to agricultural workers. They ranks third behind respiratory and skin diseases. [15]

Causes of noise in agriculture include:

  • Mobile machinery (e.g. tractors);
  • Other work equipment (e.g. chain saws); and
  • Livestock

Noise and vibration often occur together. Workers in agriculture are at particular risk of vibration. According to Eurofound’s fourth European working conditions survey (EWCS), 38 % of all workers exposed to vibrations work in agriculture [16]. They are exposed to whole-body vibrations but also to hand-arm vibrations. Vibration can cause health effects that range from discomfort to acute or chronic illness. The basic sources of whole body vibration in agriculture are tractors and self-propelled farm machines (e.g. harvesters, mowers). Exposure to whole-body vibration over a long period of time can have a negative effect on the organs, muscles and the circulatory system. Exposure to hand/arm vibration through powered hand tools, such as chainsaws, brush cutters or grinders can cause the white finger syndrome, nerve, muscle or joint damage. [17]

Dangerous Substances

Agricultural workers may be exposed to chemicals, including pesticides, fertilizers, disinfecting agents, veterinary drugs, solvents, and oils which might in the long-run cause asthma, skin problems, harm to the nervous system, or cancer.[8] The largest quantities correspond to the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

Pesticide exposure can be associated with a number of health problems including:

  • Acute or chronic carcinogenic, causing cancer of the brain, stomach, pancreas, etc.;
  • Immunology diseases;
  • Neurotoxic diseases;
  • Reproductive toxic effects;
  • Leukaemia, and;
  • Lymphomas.

Skin contact with chemicals or prolonged exposure to UV radiation (sunlight) can have dermatological effects such as:

  • Irritant and / or allergic contact dermatitis,
  • Sun-induced dermatitis,
  • Burns,
  • Melanoma,
  • skin cancer, etc.

Dust and Biological Agents

Workers in agriculture are exposed to various sources of biological agents and dust. The specific biological agents in agricultural work include bacteria, fungi, mites, viruses, and bacteria transmitted from animals, parasites and ticks. Biological agents can cause infections or have poisoning or toxic effects. Dusts and molds may be generated in the production and storage of various grains and other biological material and can cause illness or acute respiratory reactions (e.g. asthma, farmer’s lung disease or the organic dust toxic syndrome). They are at a higher risk of asthma and respiratory symptoms than other workers.

Workers in agriculture are at risk from:

  • Bacteria, fungi, mites, and viruses transmitted from animals, parasites and ticks (zoonoses);
  • Respiratory problems due to micro-organisms and mites in organic dusts of grain, milk powder, flour, spices; and
  • Specific allergic diseases like farmer’s lung and bird breeder’s lung.

They are also at risk of being exposed to skin and respiratory sentisisers from:

  • Animal proteins from urine and dander,
  • Flour,
  • Some vegetables, plants, and spices,
  • Storage mites,
  • Moulds,
  • Some wood dusts incl. composite boards,
  • Textile fibers


Workers are at risk of electrocution, where electrical equipment and installations do not comply with the correct standard, are broken, or not well maintained. Electrocution is quick and deadly. Workers are at risk if they come in contact with faulty electrical installations, equipment or overhead cables.[8] Electrical installations can be found in all buildings, including stables, workshops, residential houses and the farmyard, and many other farm buildings.

Portable electrical tools (e.g. electric welders, drills, battery chargers) have been responsible for many electrocutions on farms.

Overhead power lines pose a serious risk to workers in agriculture. Some large agricultural machinery and lifting equipment are capable of reaching overhead electricity power lines.

Prevention and Control Measures

After the hazards have been identified, the next step is to determine who will be exposed to these hazards and to what extent. This will then lead to the identification of the necessary prevention and control measures, including reassessing the effectiveness of existing measures. The selection of measures has to follow a certain hierarchy to ensure that the most effective measures (e.g. elimination and substitution) are considered first, and the least effective (e.g. personal protective equipment) are seen as the last resort. The elimination of noise can include: replacing machinery or vehicles with less noisy machinery or changing the way work is carried out so hazardous noise is not produced.

Substitution of hazardous chemicals or processes can include: replacing dangerous substances by non or less hazardous ones (e.g. water-based paints or aqueous cleaning processes).

The application of engineering controls to reduce noise includes: the use of a cabined tractor, using insulation and sound dampeners. The application of Organisational measures of accident prevention includes: to separate the worker from the noise and to reduce the time workers are exposed to noise.

The use of personal protection equipment (PPE), when prevention and control measures are not sufficient, can include hearing protectors, safety footwear, respiratory protection, sunscreen against the UV radiation, etc.

It is required to involve the workers into the risk assessment process, as they know about the conditions and risks at their own workplaces. This will increase their motivation to apply the developed measures.

The employer must ensure that all workers receive sufficient and adequate information and training. This is to enable workers to work effectively and efficiently, safely and without risk to their health. Training and instruction are continuous processes. However, they are particularly important concerning:

  • their recruitment;
  • a transfer or change of duties;
  • the introduction or change of a work equipment;
  • the introduction of a new technology.

Some examples of prevention measures for risks arising in agriculture are listed in table 6.

Table 6: Examples of Prevention Measures

Risks in agricultureExamples of prevention measures
Machinery and vehicles
  • Machine, vehicles or equipment must be ‘CE’ marked
  • Regularly maintaining machines and vehicles (including brakes, hydraulic hoses and power take-off guards)
  • Providing training for all workers including seasonal workers
Slips, trips and falls
  • Good house keeping
  • Providing appropriate fall protection
  • Providing training for workers
  • Providing proper handling facilities and keeping them in good working order
  • Respecting the animals’ welfare
Manual handling
  • Providing mechanical handling or lifting aids
  • Providing ergonomic tools
Confined spaces
  • Avoid working in confined spaces whenever possible,
  • Following a safe system of work if working inside
  • Making appropriate arrangements for rescue in an emergency [18]
Noise and vibration
  • Selecting suitable machines (less noisy and shock absorbed)
  • Regularly maintaining the machines and seat suspension components
  • Maintaining paved surfaces and site roadways
  • Reducing the amount of time workers are exposed to noise and vibration
  • Adjusting seats to drivers
  • Providing personal protective equipment (hearing protectors)
Dangerous substances
  • Replacing hazardous substances with less hazardous ones
Dust and biological agents
  • Designing work processes and controls, and using adequate equipment and materials to reduce the release of dangerous substances, for example by enclosure of the emitting process or providing local exhaust ventilation [19]
  • Avoiding working near overhead power lines.
  • Using residual-current devices (RCDs) to disconnect the power supply automatically
  • Regularly checking and maintaining electrical equipment, tools and installations

Risk Assessment Tools

In 2009, EU-OSHA began to develop a web application (tools generator) to create interactive risk assessment tools (OiRA tools). These OiRA tools help micro- and small organisations to put in place a risk assessment process – starting with the identification and evaluation of workplace risks, passing on to decision making on preventive actions and the taking of action and ending with monitoring and reporting. Meanwhile, the social partners of the agricultural sector in Latvia have developed their own OiRA tool for the sector. The tool allows small companies and self-employed persons to do their legally required risk assessment in a time-effective manner and at the same time find a comprehensive inventory of up-to-date prevention and control measures, whereby they can select the most appropriate for their businesses. [20]

Vulnerable Groups


Farms are dangerous places for children. Every year children are killed during agricultural work. According to HSA two to three children were killed in farm accidents every year in the period between 2000 and 2010.[21] The main causes of child fatal accidents are tractors, machinery, drowning and contact with animals.

Contractors and Migrant Workers

Contractors are often used for particularly hazardous jobs such as cleaning or repairing fragile roofs, or cleaning out slurry tanks and are at greater risk from accidents and disease. In the agriculture sector, seasonal workers are often migrant workers. Lack of awareness of hazards and risks and language difficulties make migrant workers vulnerable to accidents and disease.[8]

Migrant workers are exposed to the same risks as other, home based, seasonal agricultural workers. However, due to the difficulties in obtaining work and residential permits in many European countries, many migrant workers work in the unofficial ‘black’ economy. The work of these migrants is undeclared, and consequently they may be low paid and have poor housing and living conditions. These workers will make no social security contributions, and consequently have no social protection, and are often subjected to abuse and exploitation.

Legal Aspects

Safety and health in agriculture is not covered by a specific EU directive but various EU directives do address certain safety and health issues in the sector. Council Directive 89/391/EEC of 12 June 1989 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work – the "Framework Directive" - sets out the risk assessment process and the general principles of risk prevention. Self-employed workers are not covered by the Directives on health and safety at work, in particular with the Framework Directive, but there is a Council Recommendation concerning the improvement of the protection of the health and safety at work of self-employed workers. Taking into account that the number of self-employed is increasing and there are a large number of self-employed workers in certain "high-risk" sectors such as agriculture, fishing, construction, and transport, the Council recommends that Member States promote health and safety for self-employed workers by measures they consider most appropriate, such as legislation, incentives, information campaigns, access to training and health surveillance. The framework directive is supplemented by individual directives, most of them also relevant for maintenance in agriculture. Some directives address safety and health in agriculture in particular, mainly in machinery and equipment safety (tractors and harvesters), ergonomic design of machinery, and the safe use of dangerous substances or agents in agriculture such as pesticides.[8]


[1] Eurostat, ''Agriculture, forestry and fishery statistics'', Statistical books, 2014, pp. 11-34. Available at:

[2] Health and Safety Executive HSE (2015). Agriculture. Retrieved on 19 March 2015, from:

[3] European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditons, ''Agriculture sector: Working conditions and job quality''. Eurofound Working Conditions Survey, 2014, pp. 1-17. Available at:

[4] Eurostat (2015). Fatal Accidents at work by economic activity [hsw_n2_02] Last update 05-10-2023. Retrieved 6 October 2023, from:

[5] Eurostat (2015). Accidents at work by economic activity and size of enterprise [hsw_n2_05] Last update 27-11-2014. Retrieved 15 February 2015, from:

[6] Eurostat (2015). Non-Fatal Accidents at work by economic activity [hsw_n2_02] Last update 09-02-2015. Retrieved 15 February 2015, from:

[7] Eurostat (2015). Accidents at work by economic activity and size of enterprise [hsw_n2_05] Last update 27-11-2014. Retrieved 15 February 2015, from:

[8] European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ''Maintenance in Agriculture - A Safety and Health Guide'', 2011, pp. 1-60. Available at:

[9] Health and Safety Executive HSE, ''Working safely with agricultural machinery'', 2012, pp. 1-6. Available at:

[10] Health and Safety Executive HSE (no date). Agriculture – Work at height: preventing falls. Retrieved 22 March 2015, from:

[11] Work Safe New Zealand, 'Preventing slips, trips and falls on farms', ''Good practice Guideline'', 2014. Available at:

[12] Work Safe New Zealand, Preventing manual handling injuries on farms, Good Practice Guideline, 2014, p.7. Available at:

[13] European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Maintenance in Agriculture - A Safety and Health Guide, 2011, pp. 1-60. Available at:

[14] Karlovich R.S., Wiley T.L., Tweed T., Jensen D.V., 'Hearing sensitivity in farmers', ''Public Health Rep'', 1988, No.103, pp. 61-71. Available at:

[15] top agrar, 'Lärm auf dem Hof', ''Top Agrar'', No.2, 2006, p. 152. Available at:

[16] EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 'Workplace exposure to vibration in Europe: an expert review', ''European Risk Observatory Report'', No. 7, 2008, p.17. Available at:

[17] Governement of Nova Scotia (2014). Occupational Safety and Knowledge Base. Vibration exposure. Retrieved 23 March 2015, from:

[18] Health and Safety Executive HSE, Managing confined spaces on farms, HSE Information sheet No. 26, Available at:

[19] European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (no date). Biological Agents and Agriculture. Available at:

[20] EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (2015). OiRA Tools. Retrieved 22 February 2015, from:

[21] Health and Safety Agency HSA (2015). Children on Farms. Retrieved 20 March 2015, from:

Further reading

European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Exposure to carcinogens and work-related cancer: a review of assessment methods, 2014. Available at: (

Health and Safety Execution (no date). Free leaflets: Agriculture. Retrieved 20 March 2015, from:

European Commission, Protecting health and safety of workers in agriculture, livestock farming, horticulture and forestry, Non–binding guide to best practice, 2012, pp. 1-176. Available at:

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Karla Van den Broek

Prevent, Belgium
Ellen Schmitz-Felten