Repair and maintenance workers are regularly risking their lives through exposure to asbestos, unions and safety groups have warned.

Ucatt has said that in the past two months there have been three major incidents in which its members have been exposed to asbestos while working for local authorities. The union said it feared this was “only the tip of the iceberg”.

Regulations require asbestos to be removed by a licensed contractor, but an alteration to the rules in 2006 allowed workers who had received training to handle textured decorative coatings that contained asbestos.

Ucatt fears that the change may have been misconstrued and left workers ignorant of the dangers they face. It is urging its members to refrain from handling the dangerous substance and is calling for tighter controls on inspections.

“There is a tremendous amount of ignorance among construction workers concerning asbestos,” said Alan Ritchie, general secretary at Ucatt. “Those working in refurbishment and maintenance could be risking their lives daily.”

Ucatt is carrying out research into the extent and effects of asbestos. The findings will be presented to the government and local authorities next spring.