The mainland has no shortage of laws to protect people and the environment from disasters. But the number and scale of accidents proves their limitations. Laws do not work unless they are enforced and provide a meaningful deterrent to those who may be minded to cut corners or otherwise fail to ensure people's safety in the drive for financial gain. A system which hits offenders in the pocket is needed. Fines tend to be low and maximum penalties of about 400,000 yuan (HK$488,000) for death and 200,000 yuan for environmental pollution are clearly not sufficient deterrents for wealthy firms. A few years' jail for top officials does not affect operations or profits. Civil law only allows victims to claim compensation which is equivalent to the actual damage they have suffered. It is in part why there are so many mining accidents; bridges and buildings that collapse; and disasters such as last month's high-speed-rail crash near Wenzhou that killed 40 people. On paper, the laws as they stand should be able to deal with most issues. They are regularly being updated and added to, making them ever more relevant to China's fast-changing conditions. Where they fall down is with mechanisms, standards and management, which leaves them with little judicial backing. Administrative officials carry out investigations and hear complaints, but they can only impose fines as outlined by legislation, leaving compensation a matter between companies and victims. It is an unsatisfactory situation that needs to be improved. Imposing punitive damages - punishing financially the person or company behind wrongful acts to discourage them and others from a repeat - is not a part of the mainland's legal system. Yet embracing such an idea, and with penalties large enough to send a loud message, would be one way of tackling what is an ever more troubling problem. The State Oceanic Administration's announcement this month that it will sue the American oil giant ConocoPhillips, reportedly for as much as 100 million yuan, for its part in two spills from offshore rigs in the Bohai Sea in June makes such a statement. Fisheries have been hard hit by the 842 square kilometre spills, but if past compensation claims are any guide what they eventually receive is unlikely to come close to covering losses. Legal restrictions, a lack of judicial independence and, sometimes, a lack of determination by the authorities can lead to payouts that are a fraction of claims. Striking a balance is always a challenge, but if companies are to be deterred from putting profits ahead of lives and the environment, penalties have to be at a level that ensures safety is made a priority.