MORE THAN a billion dollars have been spent over the past 10 years for litigation and settlement of claims by workers injured by on-the-job exposure to asbestos. Almost two-thirds of that money has gone to lawyers and other intermediaries rather than to compensation for injured workers. That dismal record of inefficiency and unfairness may be in for radical improvement.

A group of legal experts, set up by the Center for Public Resources under the chairmanship of Yale Law School Dean Harry Wellington, has come up with the idea of establishing a one-stop facility that would assure workers of rapid, inexpensive and uniform settlement of asbestos-related claims. The Asbestos Claims Facility would be set up with the backing of most major producers and their insurance companies and, significantly, with no involvement by or cost to the government. Workers could still choose to go to court, though past experience suggests that few would find that a preferable route.

Typically, workers have no idea which companies made the asbestos to which they were exposed 30 or 40 years ago. They must bring lawsuits against all potential producers in hopes of winning an award. The average such lawsuit -- more than 23,000 are now pending -- involves 20 different companies, each with its own battery of highly paid lawyers. If a worker finally succeeds -- and many do not -- in getting an award, his own lawyer may claim as much as half of it. Meanwhile, the producers are spending still more money haggling with their insurers over responsibility for the costs of a particular claim.

With the prospect of future claims costs mounting into the tens of billions, producers and insurers finally are realizing that mediation, rather than litigation, offers a better deal for all involved. As a result, 25 producers, including the largest, Johns Manville, and 18 insurers have agreed to participate in the project -- if enough producers and their insurers sign up to make it workable.

This experiment will be of interest far beyond the area of asbestos litigation. As knowledge of the long- term effects of exposure to toxic substances increases, claims for victim compensation will also increase. Neither workers' compensation nor traditional tort liability litigation is well-suited to dealing with these claims. Certain aspects of the asbestos situation are unique, but if the Asbestos Claim Facility works reasonably well, it may suggest better ways of handling other kinds of exposure claims too.