Manville Corp., a conglomerate with annual sales of more than $2 billion, today filed for reorganization under federal bankruptcy laws in an effort to force resolution of a flood of lawsuits by disabled and stricken asbestos workers.

The action, filed here by the Denver-based company, essentially freezes more than 16,500 suits against Manville stemming from asbestos-related illness over more than 20 years. Company officials said the bankruptcy is designed to pressure Congress to take action to ease the burden on the company.

"This is not a financial failure; it is rather a failure of our court and legislative systems to provide an orderly way to compensate victims of unexpected occupational health catastrophe," Manville President John A. McKinney said in a statement. Manville, and a number of other companies facing a string of lawsuits from victims of asbestos-related disease, has been seeking enactment of legislation that would establish a trust fund provided by industry, insurance companies, and government to handle the rash of claims. Late last month, UNR Industries, a Chicago company, filed for bankruptcy, citing lawsuits that had cost the company more than $26 million.

The Manville action today shocked Wall Street analysts and other industry observers. "It was a very, very drastic move on the company's part," said Timothy L. Jones, with Oppenheimer & Co.

But another analyst called the filing "a smart move" and predicted that "there will be an awful lot of political pressure from people who want these claims settled. Manville has almost nothing to lose," he said.

William C. McLaughlin, general counsel of UNR Industries and president of the Washington-based Asbestos Compensation Coalition, the industry group, said that the UNR and Manville bankruptcy petitions underscore the need for congressional action.

"It's safe to say that if there is no legislative relief in the next 18 months, we'll all be there," he said. McLaughlin added that the solution to the growing asbestos disease problem is "beyond the capacity of private industry."

But there are deep divisions in Congress over how to compensate asbestos victims, and action is not likely, at the earliest, until the next Congress gets under way early in 1983.

Rep. George Miller, (D-Calif.), chairman of the House labor standards subcommittee, has offered legislation that would set up a benefit system financed entirely by taxes on the asbestos industry. Workers who accept the benefits would be barred from filing lawsuits against the asbestos companies.

In their suits, asbestos workers, citing internal industry documents, have charged that manufacturers sought for decades to conceal the possibility that inhaling asbestos fibers could result in disabling and fatal diseases, charges that the companies have denied. Rep. Miller has maintained that the compensation burden thus falls entirely on the industry and there should be no federal "bailout."

"It's their responsibility," he said today. "They falsified the documents and lied to the workers and concealed evidence and now they think the taxpayers should make up for that?"

Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) said that the Manville petition will put pressure on Congress for "a legislative remedy that will quickly and equitably compensate workers suffering from asbestos-related diseases." Hart has proposed legislation that would tap government and industry money to pay benefits to stricken workers.

The industry maintains that the maze of litigation in the courts -- and the expected thousands of suits still to come -- has not worked to the advantage of asbestos workers. Awards to workers vary significantly in amount and legal fees are large, the industry says. "This system is nothing short of a travesty," the industry coalition said in a statement today.

One key issue is whether -- and for how long -- the bankruptcy court will set aside the asbestos litigation. Lawyers and industry officials said that while there is an automatic stay in the suits, it is not clear what the long-range resolution would be for those workers who have sued.

Fred Baron, a Dallas lawyer who represents many asbestos workers, said today that Manville is attempting to use the bankruptcy court to escape liability for compensating the afflicted workers. "You're talking about companies that are not bankrupt, they have found a loophole."

Baron pointed out that Manville is involved in a separate dispute with insurance companies over the distribution of liability from the suits. By going to bankruptcy court, he said, the asbestos firm can "buy time" until the insurance litigation is resolved, possibly in several years.

In the meantime, he said, Manville can avoid the escalating legal costs of defending itself from the workers' suits, costs which proved especially heavy for a smaller firm like UNR Industries. Ultimately, the insurance lawsuit could provide Manville with some help in paying for workers' disabilities.

McLaughlin, the industry official, said the bankruptcy filings were not made simply as a tactic to pressure Congress. "It is not a ploy," he said. "Nobody who has been through Chapter 11 would possibly do it if any other course were left open." The bankruptcy judge and creditors' representatives will now have a large say in Manville's operations.

According to Manville's court papers, during the first half of 1982, an average of 425 lawsuits were filed against the company each month, up from the 1981 monthly average of 400. A study commissioned recently by the company predicted that 32,000 more suits would be filed in the future.

The company disposed of nearly 1,900 claims last year at an average cost of $15,000 per claim. But that figure has risen to about $20,000 this year and, including medical and legal costs, ending each case costs an average of $40,000. The company said today the claims could total "anywhere between $2 billion to many times that amount over the next 20 years."

The litigation is costly and legally confusing. In the first half of the year, the suits cost the company $8.6 million, and only $1 of every $5 spent on the litigation goes to plaintiffs.

Meanwhile, asbestos profits fell to $36 million last year at Manville's Johns Manville subsidiary, down from $56 million in 1979. In part the drop is because of the health issue, but it also stems from the collapse of the construction market.

However, the company's broader prospects do not appear that gloomy. "The outlook is improving for their earnings," Oppenheimer & Co.'s Jones said, even though the company reported its first quarterly loss in 50 years in the first quarter this year.

In the meantime, the company will continue to pay the salaries of its approximately 25,000 employes and McKinney said the reorganization "should not prevent us from making full, timely payment to our suppliers for all shipments after our filing today."