WHEN THE financially healthy Manville Corporation filed for bankruptcy protection last August, it brought new urgency to a problem that had been festering for almost 50 years. Who should compensate the more than 100,000 workers who are likely to have contracted asbestos-related diseases as the result of their work for Manville and other asbestos manufacturers?

The workers' compensation system, the normal recourse for workers injured on the job, isn't designed to handle diseases, such as the various lung disorders traceable to asbestos exposure, that may not show up for 20 or more years after exposure. Workers have had to press their claims against Manville and other, smaller manufacturers through civil lawsuits. This procedure has fattened the wallets of tort lawyers on both sides, but the average victim has not been well served.

Some workers--aided by evidence indicating that Manville knew asbsestos was dangerous as early as the 1930s and tried to conceal the fact-- have won substantial settlements. But given differences among judges, juries and lawyers, the results have been very uneven. Many victims--including some more seriously injured than the big winners --have gotten little or nothing from their lawsuits. Allowing the lawsuits to continue would surely have driven Manville out of business sooner or later, an event that, among its many other results, would have left future claimants with no recourse. Manville's decision to seek court protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code will allow it to stay in business by striking a bargain with its creditors and claimants. Manville might, for example, offer all current and future asbestos claimants an insurance-type settlement--based only on severity of injury--that would be paid out of current assets and future earnings. If the settlement limits further individual lawsuits, asbestos victims as a group could benefit by not having to give one-third or more of their benefits to lawyers.

The terms of the settlement, however, are likely to be hotly contested, perhaps for years. And even if agreement is reached, it won't help claimants against other companies. Many of these companies --and their insurers--also face bankruptcy and with far fewer assets than Manville to put into a settlement. There is also the unresolved question of the federal liability arising from the fact that many workers were exposed to asbestos while building ships to government specification.

Asbestos victims--and workers affected by exposure to other hazardous chemicals and pesticides-- won't get fair treatment without congressional action. What is needed right now is legislation setting up an insurance program, paid for primarily by industry but with some limited government contribution to cover past liabilities.