Richard Thorn went before a Virginia legislative committee here today to tell in a gravelly voice why his troubled nights should worry the state's lawmakers.

I sit up in a chair to sleep all night, but I cannot lie down in a bed and sleep because it's too hard to catch my breath," Thorn, a textile mill worker for 40 years, told the panel. "I can climb steps slowly, but if I get in the least bit of a hurry, I've got to stop and take a pill."

Journeying up from Danville, headquaters for the state's thriving cotton weaving industry, the group of current and former mill workers detailed respiratory complaints they said had been caused by years of breathing cotton dust. All said they were victims of an illness known as brown lung. And all told members of the House Committee on Labor and Commerce that the state's Workmen's Compensation Law offeres little help for their plight.

"The doctors in Danville all said I had asthma or emphysema and [the company] retired me," complained Sammy Shelton, his voice shaking and wheezing from the effort to speak. Shelton finally learned from a specialist at Duke University that he suffered from brown lung but by then it was too late under Virginia law to file a compensation claim.

"I think I deserve compensation after spending all those years in the mill, but I'm not getting it," Shelton said angrily. "I take five different kinds of medication and even money for that woudld help because it costs me $50 a month."

"The law is set up that a worker has to file within five years of retirement -- but I had been out of the mills nine years before I even heard of brown lung," argued Annie Allen, the 75-year-old vice-president of the Virginia Brown Lung Association and a 20-year veteran of the mills. The association, which began a campaign to change the law today, estimates that brown lung, or byssinosis, eventually will strike between 8 and 12 percent of the state's 13,000 textile workers.

About 100 textile workers have given the the brown lung group, an offshot of a North Carolina organization that successfully brought similiar change to that state's workmen's compensation laws, stories of how they ran afoul of Virginia's time limit on filing worker compensation claims.

Today's hearing was the first time any Virginia legislative panel addressed the issue. It was was set up by State Del. Calvin W. Fowler (D-Danville) at the request of the Brown Lung Association, which is hoping the traditionally pro-business General Assembly will agree at least to study their complaints.

Fowler, whom one hearing witness privately depicted as "a mill man," did not comment or ask any questions during today's meeting, which came on the eve of the assembly's 1981 opening session. Afterwards, he concurred with Labor Committee Chairman Robert E. Washington (D-Norfolk) that nothing could be done to address, or even study, the problem during the 38-day legislative session.

Fowler also expressed doubts about whether anything should be done. "I didn't know anything about it [brown lung] and I still don't," said Fowler. d"The medical situation is so confused -- you've got others saying there's no such thing as brown lung. . . . Unless you can show this results from the industry, it's hardly fair to make the industry pay for it."

Though the vast majority of his constitutents are mill workers, Fowler said he would prefer not to serve on any study panel the legislature might eventually establish. He said that Dan River Inc., the major textile employer in Danville, would oppose any attmept to link respiratory illness to cotton mill work.

Under questioning from a legislator, Robert Joyner, who heads the state's Industrial Commission, said he couldn't give any comparisons on how other states have handled the problem even though the issue has been reported in the state's press. "I don't know, I'm really only familiar with our own statute," Joyner said.

Elizabeth Scott, a staff organizer for the brown lung group, said that both North and South Carolina allow mill workers to file brown lung claims two years from the date the disease is diagnosed. She noted that more than 1,600 worker compensation claims have been filed there in the last five years, with more than $7 million paid out.

In Virgnina, only two brown lung claims have been processed by the Industrial Commission, which hears workmen's compensation cases. The most recent claim was denied, even though the worker had a brown lung diagnosis, because the claimant also had been a smoker.

But Annie Allen told the House panel that a smoking history is not the main obstacle to collecting compensation for brown lung. "I've never smoked a cigarette in my life but I did work in the Dan River cotton mill for 20 years," she said. "Now I have the symptoms of brown lung, but unless the statute is changed, it won't mean anything to me or other brown lung sufferes. This is absolutely unfair to textile workers."