OCCUPATIONAL exposure to asbestos, which is now known to cause disability and death at levels lower than those thought to be safe in earlier decades, has created a legal nightmare. That might just be bad news for the victims and the asbestos manufacturers, except that the number of new victims is so large--it is expected soon to reach 8,000 to 10,000 a year and to remain at that level until the end of the century--and the compensation system such a mess, that if left uncorrected they could significantly affect the national economy.

Asbestos causes a range of lung diseases, some of them fatal, that generally do not show up for 20 years or more after exposure. This means that unsafe conditions have persisted for decades. So even though tight exposure regulations were imposed by the mid-'70s, the number of victims will continue to increase for years to come.

The workers' compensation program was not designed to handle injuries that do not show up for 20 years. So, increasingly, victims have turned to the courts. But the legal system is now awash in a flood of claims and cases. Workers are suing the manufacturers; the manufacturers are suing their insurance companies; and the insurance companies are suing each other. The city of Philadelphia now has five full-time "asbestos judges."

Asbestos manufacturers, many with only a few hundred employees, typically have 10,000 or more cases pending against them. Many have exhausted their primary insurance coverage. Because of their immense but unpredictable liability, it is extremely difficult to raise capital for their current needs. For many of these companies, which may not even still be in the asbestos business, asbestos problems claim more time and attention of top management than does current business. Many face bankruptcy.

The victims are not benefiting, however. The companies are winning more than half the cases that come to trial. Court-awarded settlements vary widely, some hardly covering legal costs. Even cases that are settled out of court take more than two years. One company reports that for each of its settled cases, it spent an average $150,000 from which the worker, after paying legal and court fees and reimbursing the workers' compensation program, netted $28,000. A few workers hit the legal jackpot, the rest are ill-served.

Insurance companies are fighting over which of them is liable--the company that provided coverage at the time the worker was exposed, or the one that held the policy when he got sick. The 50 or so companies involved do not have the assets to cover likely future asbestos claims. Some will have to choose between drastically raising their other premiums--for auto, fire and other common policies--and going under, leaving their policyholders unprotected.

The likelihood of bankruptcies among manufacturers and insurers, the lack of remedy for the victims and the unmanageable legal mess that is burdening court schedules make it imperative for Congress to stop its endless studying of the problem-- this has been going on for years--and take action. The general principles of a fair, workable and affordable compensation scheme have been outlined. The present system is serving no one but--who else?--the lawyers.